Innovators Will Leave

Many of the digital innovators that health systems need, are going to leave unless things change. So let’s not tiptoe around this. Because the news about Aaron Martin’s departure from Providence tells us that this might be the perfect time to start talking about it.
You may have heard the news that Aaron, Providence’s chief digital officer, is returning to Amazon after eight years. Martin led Providence Ventures, their $300 million health tech fund. Aaron first came to Providence from Amazon, where he was one of the lead executives on the Kindle e-reader. Under his leadership at Providence, the health system spun out two digital health companies from its digital innovation group including DexCare, their platform-as-a-service, digital care operating system that is somehow flying under the radar but has massive upside in providing that mythical connected digital consumer experience. According to Bloomberg, Aaron will now help Amazon “deepen its partnership with medical providers” as it tries to inch its way into the healthcare space.
If there is a list of impactful health system leaders with the vision to change the tide, Aaron has been near the top of that list. He has continually shared a vision of how traditional sick care is being disrupted, and has pled for leaders to open their eyes, see what he sees, and get to work. I’ve quoted him many times on this podcast.
Now I’m not privy to any details about Aaron’s departure, but the trend of digital innovation talent leaving health systems is real, all the way to the highest levels. And the upcoming generation of innovation leaders isn’t really begging to enter the health systems ranks. They hear about digital health startups, consumer brands entering the space, and yes, even consulting — all opportunities that appear to have the impact AND compensation they’re looking for. Health systems don’t typically appear near the top of their list. The mission component of working for a health system is important. But it’s rarely enough to retain digital innovation talent long term. And above the usual costs of turnover, there seems to be an especially precipitous dropoff when digital talent leaves, because they frequently champion long-term projects that can take time to bear fruit. So when the evangelist leaves, the project frequently gets shelved.
You might think I’m reading into this too much, but I can tell you that in many health systems, there is a fundamental collision between Innovation and Operations. The ones looking ahead, and the ones saying that’s great, but I’m too busy to change right now, talk to me later. The point is that it isn’t just clinical staffing that needs to be addressed. And it’s a legitimate question to ask why we’re not talking about this more.
So what do digital innovators want? Easy. They want to move faster. They came to your organization to move fast and make a difference. That’s frequently at odds with the bureaucractic, provider-centric nature of health system org structures. Tell me I’m wrong! Innovators also want YOU to have their backs as they challenge that bureaucracy and inertia that has kept you where you’re at. That’s why you hired them in the first place: to challenge the status quo. It’s a messy business. Sometimes it gets bloody. They need you to have their backs.
What can you, as leaders, do to keep them? You can prioritize operationalizing what they’re trying to do. You can be their advocate when operations and clinical leaders tell you that they don’t have time to change. And you can lead out in making innovation part of the culture for everyone. Instead of it being something that just one team does in the lab.
It’s time to open an honest, ongoing conversation about attracting and retaining digital innovation talent at all levels in hospitals and health systems. That’s another way that we’ll build the Healthcare of Tomorrow. And THAT’s the Flava of the Week.

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