I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Martin, executive vice president, chief digital officer of Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH) and managing general partner of Providence Ventures. PSJH is the nation’s third largest health care system.
In this capacity, Aaron is focused on PSJH’s digital journey, launching new technologies around improving digital convenience and engagement. Additionally, Aaron launched and manages Providence Ventures, a $150M venture fund that has invested in health care IT companies such as Omada, Xealth, Kyruus, etc.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’ve had an eclectic career. My undergraduate training is in Music Performance/Composition and Economics. I learned quickly I was going to be a “subsistence musician” if I continued down that path — I was talented but not great. I still play in a cover band though. I worked in health care earlier in my career, went to Business school and studied health care, consulted in health care and then left the field for technology for about 15 years, founding a couple of technology companies along the way and then spending nearly a decade at Amazon. I loved working at Amazon. Demanding, challenging and innovative. Great place for people who want to build things. I would have retired at Amazon had I not gotten the call to come to Providence. The ambition of the mission and leadership team is what drew me to Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH). The leadership team at PSJH, Rod Hochman and Mike Butler, “blew my hair back” when I met them. They were very unusual for health care executives. I like to joke that they are technology executives trapped in health care bodies. They understood four years ago that the changes coming were going to be highly disruptive to their business and they wanted to get an organization founded 160 years ago with an amazing Mission ready — so I joined.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you joined the company?
I was on a panel with Rod Hochman, my CEO at PSJH, and the moderator asked him “who owns innovation at your organization?” Given that, at the time, my title had “innovation” in it, I thought Rod would point to me. Instead, he said “I do” without skipping a beat. He continued, “If the CEO doesn’t own innovation, the organization won’t make the progress it needs. It’s otherwise not a fair fight because of the natural organizational inertia to doing things the way they’ve always worked.” I think that is incredibly true and speaks to Rod’s mindset around leading in innovation.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The people and the mission. The mission is what gets people jazzed on my team. Our mission is to serve the poor and vulnerable. That mission is what gives my team, who compete with the big tech firms for top talent, an advantage in recruiting like-minded others. We’re making health care less expensive, more accessible, and simpler for people and you can see the impact we’re having every day in our metrics.
People think digital and convenience in health care only helps those in upper and middle income tax brackets. The truth is that at PSJH , we serve everybody, including those on fixed incomes, the uninsured, and more than 20 million people covered by Medicaid across seven states. Complexity and inconvenience in accessing health care a disproportionate impact on these populations. For example, asking a single mom to take half a day off work to go to a primary care appointment means best case half a day’s income is lost. If we can deliver that same care through technologies like telehealth, that’s a huge thing for her.
I have so many stories in the four years I’ve been here. I remember shadowing one of our primary care physicians and was amazed at how often behavioral health issues like depression and anxiety came up in visits in which that was not reason for the patient’s visit. I asked the physician about this and she said that was typical. Most people with depression or anxiety are worried about the stigma, even around their physician. The physician was brilliant about drawing what they were really there for out in the conversation. That said, it was really difficult for the physician to refer her patients to treatment because of the lack of availability of behavioral health services in the area once she did identify them. We’re now working with our amazing behavioral health team lead by Dr. Arpan Waghray to better integrate behavioral health services into primary care to better screen and provide resources to patients who are struggling with these issues. Even more importantly, PSJH founded and committed to an investment in the Well Being Trust which is a national organization that is purpose-built to impact issues around behavioral health in the community.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We’re looking at different solutions in AI to help patients navigate health care options more effectively. The problem we’re solving is that we’ve created a whole host of options for care that add convenience but now we need to help patients navigate themselves to the right care environment based on the problem they’re having. Doing this effectively will lower the costs of healthcare across the system for the patient, payer, and health system.
Also, we’re very excited about the work that Xealth is doing, a company incubated at Providence Ventures that we spun out last year. Xealth allows clinicians to recommend any product, service, app, digital content, etc. right from their EMR just as they would prescribe a pharmaceutical. This technology has infinite possibilities as clinicians make recommendations every day but they’re incredibly hard for the patient to follow up on and impossible for the clinician to see if the patient engaged on the recommendation. Xealth solves these problems.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
It sounds trite, but you need to build an exceptional culture first and foremost. My team is organized like a startup of 200 people within a 108,000 person organization. We have the PSJH culture and a team culture. The team comes from very different backgrounds: health care, big tech (Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, etc), and small tech startups. The commonality is the mission and our goal is to draw from and integrate these different cultures to hopefully build something truly unique and effective. The trick is to get people engaged every day and bring their best selves to work. When I speak to our top CEO’s in our portfolio like Sean Duffy at Omada Health, this is something they obsess over and rightly so. I seek their advice and coaching often.
We’re also putting an emphasis on diversity, especially gender diversity, in our team. We’re a $23B organization that was founded by women 160 years ago. Think about how amazing that statement is for a minute. They were both literal and metaphorical pioneers. Women in leadership is our tradition at PSJH. Also, women are our customers. Women control 90% of the health care spend in a typical house hold. Most of the caregivers in health care are women. So, in addition to being the right thing to do, gender diversity in our industry is critical to understanding our primary customer and the people at bedside who take care of their families. More than half of our senior leadership at PSJH are female. More than half of my team, a technology team, is female. This will be a never-ending mission to make my digital team the best place in Seattle to work for female leaders in technology.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are a lot. My dad. He’s always been my ethical and moral north star for my whole life. My first boss Geoff Packwood who taught me the basics of how to lead and motivate people. I still ask his advice to this day. The leadership at Amazon is truly amazing. Jeff Wilkie, Russ Grandinetti, and David Naggar to name a few, are some great examples of people I worked for at Amazon and who taught me about having high standards, leadership, and driving innovation. They did this in a combination of being demanding but with a great sense of humor. If you’re at Amazon or thinking of working at Amazon, if you get the opportunity to work for any of them, you should jump at the chance. Finally, Rod and Mike, my two bosses at PSJH. They are both relentlessly optimistic but also pragmatic about what needs to happen to navigate our 160 year-old mission through this incredibly challenging and dynamic industry.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s PSJH’s mission. We’re a $23B health system that delivers nearly $1B of community benefit to the poor and vulnerable and the community. It’s an amazing institution. Just being a part of it brings goodness to the world every day.
Can you share the top ways that technology is changing the experience of going to the doctor.
We’re making accessing care very simple while lowering the cost using digital. We’ll even bring the care to you.
For example, in partnership with our physician services team, we launched Express Care which allows customers to access same day care in a conveniently located clinic embedded in a Walgreens, get a virtual visit using video conferencing with one of our clinicians, or summon a clinician to your home if, for instance, your entire family is down with the flu. Once you’re in the physician’s office, we’re experimenting AI driven digital scribe technologies that would allow the clinician to engage with the patient while voice AI acts as a digital scribe charting and taking notes. If English is not your first language, no problem, we have on demand live clinical translator that is beamed into your session with the clinician via our partner InDemand Interpreting to make sure you’re safely understanding the conversation with your care provider. Once you leave the office, we’re following up with a digital engagement platform that will help you stay healthy over time via different apps and programs like Circle for expectant mothers, Omada for people at risk for diabetes, Arivale for people who want to use the latest science to keep them well, etc. — all prescribed to you by your clinician using the Xealth platform.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Pretty much anything Churchill said. Here’s one of my favorites: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” I think in business, you build moats around solving really hard problems. I also think the great leaders I look up to are long term optimists but are impatient in a very productive way. They want to get to the “good part” which is always the future and which is always better than today. They also know they have to build a plan to get there and it’s not just going to happen.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
Given the categories you mention, probably Ben Horrowitz. I read, re-read and read again his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. I think it’s probably one of the most valuable business books every written for anyone in a start-up. It was both painful and revealing to read. Painful because a lot of the mistakes he talks about I’ve made in my startups earlier in my career. Revealing because there’s a ton of wisdom in those lessons he draws out. I have a ton of questions for him.