10 Questions with Amy Andersen of IBM Watson Health

With a career spanning over 20 years in nearly every facet of healthcare, Amy Andersen has her fingers on the pulse of the sector. In her current role at IBM Watson Health Consulting, she is orchestrating data-driven transformations focused on prevention and community wellness. In this exclusive interview with CareCloud, Andersen talks about change management in medicine, the possibilities of data-driven diagnoses and the unique perspective women executives bring to the health sector.

Emily Peters: Thank you so much for making time to talk with us today. I’d love to start by hearing more about your career and then getting tactical around how you see independent medical groups fitting into the care continuum.

Amy Andersen: The common thread of my career is an unyielding passion to transform healthcare. I started in Washington, DC, as policy analyst and lobbyist. My entry into the medical world was during the Clinton wave of health reform. I learned a lot about how policy can and cannot actually affect the healthcare sector. Policy and regulation has had an impact, but it’s not the only driver of change in this landscape.

I also worked early in my career representing a national consortium of HIV/AIDS service providers, clinics and healthcare organizations. Through that, I understood that access, particularly access to care for people with high-cost conditions, is critically important. I believe strongly that entitlement programs should be protected and that they provide valuable ecosystems for innovation and system transformation.

That experience taught me that efficient, prevention-focused healthcare delivery systems can actually serve and support disadvantaged populations facing health disparities, and that’s good for everybody. During my 10 years at Kaiser Permanente, I had the good fortune of working mainly on the physician side of the organization. I learned a lot there about what inspires and drives physicians to practice.

Emily Peters: Kaiser has been a real leader in outcomes-based care. What did you learn from seeing that transformation firsthand?

Amy Andersen: Their focus on service as a measure of quality was really driven by Dr. Robbie Pearl, CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, on the physician side of the organization. Kaiser Permanente has fully taken on service as a tool for serving patients and communities. They see how powerful the patient relationship can be to support care whether the interaction is an in-person visit or a virtual interaction. The trust Kaiser instills in the physician-patient relationship delivers therapeutically. I value that experience as an example of what physician-led organizations can do.

You could have a great technology platform or solution or output, but if it’s not going to be used by clinicians and fed into the clinical process, it has no value.

Compare that to working in the tech world, where one of my biggest frustrations was that you could have a great technology platform or solution or output, but if it’s not going to be used by clinicians and fed into the clinical process, it has no value. I learned a lot from watching Kaiser Permanente physicians being involved in driving strategic initiatives with technology components. Those programs were in a much better position for success.

Emily Peters: That kind of change management can be hard for any medical administrator to oversee, right?

Amy Andersen: When you’re doing these kinds of big transformations in healthcare, you need to have stakeholder buy-in and engagement on the front end. Truly, if you’re doing value-based care, you need to consider every possible stakeholder. Are there community partners that you could work with? Could you add value by collaborating with community clinic consortia? Or public schools even? How can you be part of a broader solution? Candidly, there will continue to be significant innovation monies available around creating delivery models that look at community health ecosystems. Independent physician practices participating in those programs could find it highly beneficial.

Emily Peters: Is any of this changing with the new political landscape?

Amy Andersen: Value-based care is not a Democratic concept; it’s not a Republican concept. We may see some scaling back in the years ahead, but I’m highly doubtful that these delivery system reforms will be scaled back in a major way with the new administration. These programs make sense. It’s about using our resources wisely.

Emily Peters: Your political perspective is interesting because you started out studying political science in college. How did you land in healthcare?

Amy Andersen: For my master’s dissertation, I was looking at the impact of public health knowledge and political knowledge on policies related to HIV/AIDS and immigration. What I found was that the policies, the deliberations in Congress and the deliberations in committees had very little to do, not surprisingly, with what we knew about public health research and the science of transmission. I found that fascinating and thought that it wasn’t right. It made me realize that a lot of the policy passed in DC is based more on fear or special interests rather than on what we know about the practice of medicine or the science of healthcare.

Emily Peters: Do you think that the physician voice is being heard appropriately in the evolution of medicine today?

Amy Andersen: When I go out in the market to talk with leaders at provider organizations, more and more I’m seeing physicians in those ranks. Just last week, I had the chance to speak with a chief strategy officer for one of the most innovative children’s hospital systems in the country, and he’s a physician. There are more medical professionals taking on administration roles and technology roles. I think that it is very interesting to see physicians in those kinds of strategic roles.

The physician perspective is helpful for organizations looking at the art of the possible. From IBM Watson’s perspective, we certainly have a lot of tools and technologies that can deliver efficiencies today. But our vision is really about creating the health system of the future — one that’s really driven by cognitive insights from which you can derive better and more ways to personalize and customize medicine. That’s it, that’s my mantra.

Physicians understand that medicine is an art and a science. It’s not static.

Physicians understand that medicine is an art and a science. It’s not static. These are professionals who went to medical school because they wanted to serve people and communities. I love having conversations with physicians who are in those administrative positions because you can engage them on so many levels. They understand the complexity of using technology in a healthcare setting. They understand that unless it’s going to interact with the current clinical workflow and process well, it isn’t going to work.

Emily Peters: We’ve been talking a lot about the softer side of medicine, the touchy-feely side. Your perspective coming from IBM Watson brings in a high-tech piece. Do you think that those two elements are at odds with each other in healthcare today?

Amy Andersen: Technology can only innovate. It has to be paired with a critical and thoughtful understanding of the necessary culture change that goes with it. The reorganization and redesign of assets, people, technology, some clinical processes across an entire ecosystem in order to make technology change happen is a massive undertaking.

To do that, you have to have stakeholder engagement. You can’t come into a process change thinking you’re going to implement something and go away. For us at IBM Watson, the solution is working together to identify the near-term challenges and then jointly envision a future state together with our clients. We’re partners in figuring out what’s phase one and what’s phase five through ten. How are we going to go on this journey? I love that. Really, I’m super fortunate because we have such an incredibly experienced design capability and a focus on user experience. It’s our iX Team, and it’s basically linked in everything we do. Our CEO Ginni Rometty talks about this all the time. The core success for any health technology has to be user experience.

Emily Peters: Is there an example of an innovation on the software side, something small that’s maybe had a big impact that you’ve seen?

Amy Andersen: One of the things that we are building at IBM Watson Health is an obesity and nutrition engagement solution. It is called “what did I eat?” You take a picture of your food, and it can actually tell you how many calories are in it, the details of the nutritional content, and it also tracks everything. Layered on that is a digital therapy model that allows the individual to set his or her own goals for their nutrition, for their exercise, for where they want to go. It allows the individual to not just understand the goals but to glean insights into their own motivations and understand and identify triggers that may be barriers to achieving their goals. We use algorithms to identify if there are any speed bumps, any triggers that may be taking that person off course from meeting their goals. That’s where we can have customized and personalized support and interaction, either virtually or with real live individuals.

Obesity and nutrition is a huge problem. We’re doing a pilot with this model down in South Texas where 85 percent of the population is obese. Eighty-five percent. We have the chance to impact so many conditions proactively: joint replacement, diabetes, cardiac illnesses and pediatric asthma. Earlier this year, there was a study that showed the connection between pediatric obesity and cancer. That’s my passion: working on prevention.

I love IBM because I feel like this is an environment where I can take my drive for health transformation and truly have an impact. There’s this audacious vision for what could be in healthcare. I love that.

Emily Peters: Do you think women in healthcare bring a unique perspective, or passion, to their work?

Amy Andersen: At IBM, there are so many women in leadership, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to join. In previous roles, I have found myself too often be the only woman in the room. For women in the healthcare industry, I think it’s important that we build our own coalitions to connect and support one another and foster the next generation of women leaders.

In business, if people know you and trust you, that goes far. I do think women have an edge here because we are generally better at developing these relationships. It is important to be authentic. To let your humanity show through because people really respond to that sense of authenticity.

What I’ve learned in my entire career from IBM back to Capitol Hill is that it is all about relationships, both inside your organization and outside. You never know where someone will land, so it is important to maintain those connections. Women tend to be great at this — developing relationships and figuring out how to make a partnership a win-win. If you end up helping other people succeed, down the road, they may help you. I try to live that. Someone that I worked with years ago could now be the chief strategy officer at a massive provider system or vice chancellor of research at a big research institution.

Medical group administrators should take a more active role in their communities, supporting the success of broader healthcare transformations. I encourage practice executives to reach out to the chief strategy officers of the big provider systems in their region to start building those relationships.

Medical group administrators should take a more active role in their communities, supporting the success of broader healthcare transformations. I encourage practice executives to reach out to the chief strategy officers of the big provider systems in their region to start building those relationships. Even if they’re in a small practice, they should open up these communication channels because there are interesting opportunities emerging for business relationships. Large provider organizations have significant at-risk contracts where they need the support of community groups. Medical groups can tap into those and work together around strategic initiatives. That would be really cool.

Emily Peters: What are you personally most excited to see evolving in healthcare?

Amy Andersen: One of the biggest reasons why I’m at IBM is because I believe in the power of this cognitive vision in helping us unlock new ways to improve care and personalize care. I’m most interested in prevention and better ways to diagnose. My sister died last year after seven and a half years of stage IV ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed at 47 with stage IV. I don’t understand why anyone should be diagnosed with stage IV cancer. The data is out there to catch these kinds of diseases earlier; we just don’t know how to unlock the insights. My hope is to see some kind of revolution around diagnoses so we don’t have to treat, we can actually prevent. That’s my grand vision.