Optum engineers on the State of Healthcare Technology

Technology in healthcare is no longer a trend — it’s a necessity for every organization and stakeholder across the healthcare landscape. Terms like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, deep learning and natural language processing (NLP) are now part of our vernacular because we realize what we can do for healthcare increases substantially when we embrace technology adoption and investment.

The previous inertia around healthcare technology has given way to tremendous change. From analyzing data collected through health interactions, to modernizing processes to eliminate waste and lower costs, and expanding services to reach our constituents seamlessly and effortlessly, technology offers the answer to, “How do we …?”

While emerging technology is filled with promise, it has yet to reach its full potential. Insufficiently designed technology can overwhelm or confuse the people who need it most. Therefore, tech application needs to address current industry problems without adding complexity.

Recently, a group of Optum Technology fellows and leaders collaborated on a digital book published by O’Reilly Media. “State of Healthcare Technology” dives deep into eight technologies helping to drive continuous innovation and presents real-world use cases that showcase how we may use them to address some of healthcare’s biggest challenges. There’s also a look ahead, forecasting the role of healthcare technology over the next five years.

We spoke with some of the collaborators about the project for a behind the scenes look at what inspired their thinking and what drives their approach to ensure emerging tech applications provide meaningful change for healthcare outcomes and experiences.

“State of Healthcare Technology” covers several technologies, including some which may be unfamiliar to many healthcare professionals. How did you determine that these technologies were the right ones to focus on at this time?

Kerrie Holley, senior VP and technology fellow: Each technology in the e-book originates from research and development that we are pursuing to address one or more challenges and opportunities at UnitedHealth Group®, and for our two businesses, UnitedHealthcare® and Optum®. Combine that with our unparalleled data and deep industry experience, that puts us in the unique position to apply technology that makes the health system work better. We are pursuing solutions using every technology profiled in the book, so it made sense to highlight them.

Mike Jacobs, senior VP of engineering and technology fellow: We also monitor technology analyst research and industry trends to understand the state of emerging technologies. Then we begin to think about the ‘art of the possible’ with the technology to project the possible uses to address healthcare challenges.

Sanji Fernando, senior VP of AI and analytics platforms: We always look at these technologies — like AI and blockchain — as having the potential to fundamentally change healthcare. We combine this with direct experience deploying these technologies in production with our business customers and the consumers we serve.

If you had to pick one of the eight technologies profiled in the book that has you most excited about its potential for healthcare, which one would it be, and why?

Mike Jacobs: There is still some uncertainty and mistrust in patient adoption of some digital tools and tech becausevery personal information is part of engaging with the healthcare system. If we could find a way to put the patient in control of who has access to their healthcare records and for how long, we may improve patient confidence and trust.

Several technologies could contribute to that, but one that stands out is blockchain. It can be used to establish an unequivocal, self-sovereign and digitally verifiable identity for a person called “distributed identity.” Patients could digitally consent to allow providers to access their records and later revoke that permission through the use of digital credentials. This approach could be used for other purposes as well, such as provider credentialing and benefit coordination.

Kerrie Holley: AI is a broad term covering several technologies profiled in the book, and its potential to transform healthcare is exponential. It will be the building block and the invisible engine enabling the creation of better patient experiences and better outcomes.

Ambient computing, the concept of technologies that allow people to use a computer without realizing they’re doing so, is the next era of computing powered by AI, fueled by the rise of devices and the Internet of Things (IoT — like your wearable fitness tracker).

AI does require human-centered design for clinicians and others to trust it and not see it as a black box. This helps with both adoption and trust, and from our annual AI in healthcare survey, we know industry leaders are optimistic about this technology.

Other technologies profiled sit invisible in the background and blend into the environment, whether it’s the provider clinic, in the home or in back-office systems supporting our providers and members.

Sanji Fernando: I think AI is poised to transform Optum and the wider healthcare industry. Applications of AI, like machine learning and deep learning, are really the future. For the first time, we can train machine processes to “learn” from the complex decisions that are required in healthcare every day — allowing us to maximize the time and effort of all skilled professionals delivering care.

And as the amount of information being generated by a modern, 21st-century healthcare system increases, we need AI to help professionals make sense of the flood of data, to derive value in the information. When we put the new insights into the hands of the operations professionals, clinicians, call-center staff, we can really empower them to better support the end consumer.

What was your experience like coming together with peers and writing this book?

Mike Jacobs: Most of us are experts in or devote our time to a relatively small number of emerging technologies — sometimes just one. While we were writing this report, it was very interesting to learn more about the technologies I was less familiar with and how they could impact healthcare. We hope readers will have a similar, enlightening experience.

Kerrie Holley: In addition to the insights we all gleaned from one another, working directly with the other coauthors to collaborate on valuable, actionable content for readers was enjoyable. Not only do each of my peers have an immense level of knowledge when it comes to their focus area(s) of technology, they also have significant expertise working in the complex industry of healthcare. Having such an incredible team of innovative, health-tech leaders in a virtual room together was inspiring both personally and professionally.

Sanji Fernando: I agree with Mike and Kerrie. This project was a fun, creative endeavor that allowed for a lot of dialogue among the coauthors. We were able to learn from one another, create even stronger relationships among the group and ideate about the future ways we can use these eight technologies to make our Optum mission to “help the health system work better for everyone” a reality.

Kerrie, Mike, Sanji and other Optum experts share in-depth insights about the tech impacting healthcare in their new digital book. Get your copy today.

Related resources:

Video: Maurice Conti, a globally renowned futurist, and Kerrie Holley, a renowned artificial intelligence (AI) expert, discuss the future of AI in healthcare and how it will enable better, more efficient and more human care. Watch now.

Podcast: Listen to the Outcomes Rocket podcast to hear Sanji Fernando talk about removing waste and creating agility with artificial intelligence. Listen now.

Article: How can technical healthcare leaders effectively approach a blockchain initiative? Check out an article by our resident blockchain expert, Mike Jacobs. Read now.

Check out other insights, news and advice on our innovation microsite.

About the Authors:

Kerrie Holley
Senior VP and Technology Fellow

Kerrie Holley joined Optum as its first technology fellow, focused on advancing UnitedHealth Group in AI, machine learning, deep learning, graph technologies, the Internet of Things, blockchain, virtual assistants and genomics. Prior to Optum, Holley was the VP and CTO of analytics and automation at Cisco. He spent the bulk of his career at IBM where he was a fellow and master inventor, focused on scalable services and cognitive computing. Holley was IBM’s first African American distinguished engineer and a member of the Academy of Technology comprising the top 300 technologists. He appeared on ABC News and in a TED video to discuss IBM’s Watson the day after its historic debut and iconic display of AI on Jeopardy!

Mike Jacobs
Senior VP of Engineering and Technology Fellow

Mike Jacobs leads blockchain initiatives for UnitedHealth Group, including Optum and UnitedHealthcare. He is a cofounder of the Synaptic Health Alliance, editorial board member of a peer-reviewed healthcare blockchain journal, international blockchain standards contributor, chair of the IEEE 2418.6 Blockchain Subgroup for Provider Information, a member of several UHG patent review boards, and a frequent conference speaker. In his previous role, Jacobs was the portfolio architect responsible for the strategic architectural direction of the risk, quality and network solutions line of business and the approach taken by many of the projects implementing the strategy. He also advised the organization on direction for scaled agile, architecture governance and technology standards.

Sanji Fernando,
Senior VP of AI and Analytics Platforms, Optum Enterprise Analytics

Sanji Fernando is a senior vice president at Optum. He leads the AI and analytics platforms team for Optum Enterprise Analytics (OEA), supporting the design and development of leading-edge AI models and analytic tools for the enterprise. Previously, he was a vice president at OptumLabs® and led the OptumLabs Center for Applied Data Science (CADS), which applied breakthroughs in AI and machine learning to solve complex healthcare challenges for UnitedHealth Group by developing and deploying software product concepts. Prior to joining Optum, Fernando was the head of data science for the Cloud Computing Group and HERE, the navigation services division, and worked in a variety of other roles with Nokia. He was co-founder and vice president of engineering at Vettro, a venture-backed mobile software company and was a consultant with Viant and Accenture.

Leave a Reply