Health Tech Podcast

Well being Tech Podcast: Insights from a former Amazon exec now driving innovation in healthcare

Aaron Martin, the Chief Digital Officer and leader of health tech innovation at Providence St. Joseph Health, at a live recording of the GeekWire Health Tech podcast. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Lots of people think they know how to fix healthcare, from legislators in Washington D.C. to your talkative neighbor down the street.

And the tech world is no different. Tech companies, entrepreneurs, and innovators are setting their sights on healthcare like never before, but the reality is that there’s much more to health than meets the eye.

Introducing GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast, exploring the frontiers of digital health

“That’s when they realize — wow, this is really complex. This isn’t one industry, it’s many different industries. It’s very complicated. It’s very regulated,” explained Aaron Martin, a longtime tech executive who spent eight years as a vice president at Amazon.

Martin can understand that feeling, because he has personally made the journey from tech to health. He’s now an executive at Providence St. Joseph Health in Seattle, one of the biggest non-profit healthcare organizations in the country and the sponsor of this inaugural season of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast.

Martin serves as the organization’s chief digital and innovation officer. He is also managing general partner of Providence Ventures, overseeing the $150 million health-focused venture fund, and oversees Providence’s internal startup incubator, which has started to spin out new companies.

We sat down with Martin for a conversation at Providence St. Joe’s, as he calls it, in the first live recording of our Health Tech Podcast. We’re sharing the conversation today on this new episode of the show.

Martin says the healthcare industry needs real innovation, but many from outside the industry have a hard time seeing what will be impactful. Those coming from tech have a particularly hard time because of the huge differences in how the two industries work.

“I think one of the biggest differences between technology and pretty much any other industry is it’s a lot faster and easier to do innovative loops,” he said.

Part of that is because most of the product execution in tech is done by computers, which work at lightning speed. In most other industries, the innovation cycle is longer because new ideas and products are implemented by people — nurses and doctors, for example.

“In healthcare it’s extremely long. There have been studies that have said new innovation in the clinical field might take 17 years to be fully adopted by the industry, and that’s to me staggering,” Martin said.

The role of regulation in the healthcare industry is also unique — but Martin said there are some similarities between tech and health that can help innovators think about how to approach problems differently. “I think there are definitely a lot of barriers to innovation due to regulation, but I think it’s the mindset you approach it with” that matters, Martin explained.

Martin speaking with GeekWire’s Clare McGrane (left) and Todd Bishop (center) during Health Tech’s inaugural live recording. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Martin said he learned a valuable lesson about regulation during his time at Amazon. His team was working to build a system that let customers pay in any currency, which is a complicated task given how international currencies are regulated. Despite that, they found a way to make the product work while also following regulations.

“Part of the innovation is really understanding how you stay within the letter and the spirit of the regulation, but also can achieve what you need to on behalf of customers and patients,” he said.

Tech veterans also face individual challenges when trying to jump into health, Martin said. He laid out three phases that he sees newcomers go through when entering health, starting with the “I’m here to help” phase.

For an outsider looking in, the healthcare industry doesn’t make much sense. So when tech innovators try to achieve breakthroughs in healthcare, “they just assume that people haven’t done the hard work of trying to make it better, and that’s just not true. It’s just a very complex industry,” Martin said.

People then enter a “trough of despair” where they truly grasp the complex, difficult reality of the healthcare industry, he said.

“Some people are like, ‘you know what? There’s easier ways to make money. I’m out,’” he said.

But some people are energized by the challenge and dedicate themselves to the mission of healthcare, helping people stay healthy and improving society. “They also tend to be very intellectually curious people who want to understand the complexity and work with the complexity and then try to simplify it where possible,” he said.

Martin also cited one of Amazon’s leadership principles as one way to think about innovating in healthcare: “innovate and simplify.”

“The thing I learned at Amazon around that is it’s easy to innovate and complexify. That’s super easy. What’s really hard is to change the way something works and make it actually simpler,” he said.

That’s especially true in healthcare, where Martin said concern for addressing the needs of every single patient can sometimes bog down innovation and make processes and products overly complex. Martin suggested that specialized and well-trained staff should be the answer to edge cases, so that the system can focus on building more streamlined and simple solutions.

“I think that’s the fundamental issue in healthcare, which is: how do we take a look at this problem and engineer it on behalf of and change it on behalf of the caregivers and the patients?” he said.

Although there’s major differences between the two, tech and healthcare can still learn a lot for each other — and Martin is hopeful that the combination can benefit patients from all walks of life.

Listen to the podcast above, and watch the full archived live stream here.

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