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Digital Transformation in Healthcare: Dr. Reeya Patel Of Azalea Health On How Medical Practices Can Use Digital Transformation To Provide Better Care

Pay very close attention to your workflows and how efficient they are. You should have smooth and deliberate workflows that are well documented; policies and procedures that formalize these workflows are necessary for a highly effective practice, so these workflows are standardized and repeatable even if you have a turnover or if you have people subbing in at different roles at different times.

As part of our series about “Medical Practices Can Use Digital Transformation To Provide Better Care,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Reeya Patel.

Patel is the Vice President of Healthcare Insights at Azalea Health, a leading health IT company, and works collaboratively with health systems and physician practices to offer keen insight into technology-enabled solutions, including electronic health records, telehealth, and data analytics.

Her comprehensive education and background provide an industry perspective on healthcare policy and regulation, current industry trends, rural health, alternative payment models, and quality reporting programs.

She received a Doctorate in Health Administration from the Medical University of South Carolina, a Master of Public Health degree from Emory University, and is a graduate of the University of Georgia College of Public Health.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I knew of Azalea Health growing up in Valdosta, Georgia. It’s a company that started in Valdosta — you don’t typically hear of a health IT company starting in a small town.

The company name was familiar, but I didn’t know anything about health IT. I didn’t even understand its role in healthcare, but I wanted to experience something new. So, I thought I would see if there was an internship opportunity I could do while working on my Master’s degree.

Azalea was the type of company at the intersection of cutting-edge innovation and technology, bringing it to the rural environment. I grew up in rural America and was passionate about marrying those two ideas. The vision of the company and my social mission just really aligned and set me on a career path that was a really great fit for me.

Can you share the most interesting or most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?

My entire journey here is unique and exciting, and I try to share it with as many people as possible, especially with the younger colleagues whom I mentor.

At first, Azalea didn’t necessarily have a formal internship program for students, but the company was rapidly growing and had leaders who valued mentorship and workforce development. They had just opened an office in Atlanta, and it had a startup feel — the more hands-on-deck, the better, even if you don’t know what to do with those hands. I took that as an opportunity to go into something unstructured but with endless possibilities. I may not have had somebody to tell me, “This is exactly what we need you to do, and this is how to do it,” but the company’s culture was let’s figure it out, and we’ll figure it out together.

I had such a strong support system. It truly allowed me to grow and figure out what I wanted to do career-wise, and I’m so thankful for that.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Then, can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I try not to remember “mistakes” because a great mentor told me early in my career, “if it’s not a life-or-death situation, then do not refer to things not going as you planned or actions you wish you would have done differently as “mistakes.” They’re just learning opportunities that happen along the way.”

At the beginning of my career, I struggled with being too embarrassed to ask for help if I didn’t understand something or perhaps not being as direct as I could have been in asking for what I needed to be successful.

Healthcare can be hard to understand, and even years in, I still hear acronyms I don’t know or terms I don’t understand. I used to misspeak and say one thing when I meant something else. Luckily, I’ve had such a strong support system that people will laugh it off with me and tell me, “That may not be the right concept, but we understand what you’re saying.”

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I would say I am curious and have the drive to learn, and I would also consider myself to be a self-starter and proactive in creating opportunities.

I always tell colleagues I am mentoring, “spend the energy to learn what you don’t know or further understand something that you already do.” It’s okay to advocate for yourself and what you want. If you see something happening at the company or in the industry that interests you, advocate for yourself and make a seat for yourself at the table.

The worst you’re going to hear is a “no.” But at least you put it out there that you’re looking to learn more about a particular topic and willing to go above and beyond your day-to-day responsibilities to learn.

Be outspoken and advocate for what you believe in, and learn how to communicate and form healthy relationships with different personality types in the workforce.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

What I love about working at a mid-sized company is the opportunity to work on interesting and exciting projects. I am in a unique place within the organization where many of these special projects end up falling my way. This goes back to one of the earlier questions about personality traits.

I have been a big proponent of data analytics throughout my career. I think I took my first biostatistics class in high school and just absolutely fell in love. I love harnessing raw data, analyzing it and using that information to paint a story. In rural healthcare, those stories are often not told, so we’re working to tell these stories and disseminate them to a larger audience using the data we have access to.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about Digital Transformation in Healthcare. I am particularly passionate about this topic because my work focuses on how practices can streamline processes to better serve their patients. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like for a medical practice to engage in a digital transformation?

I think of digital transformation as holistically using technology-enabled solutions and services to improve business across all aspects of its operations and goals.

For a medical practice, this means using any technology or tech-enabled solution to improve a process that may currently be done manually or even introducing a new process to the practice that may not have been able to have been done before to achieve a new business goal.

For example, using electronic health record software instead of paper charts can help streamline a process. Healthcare practices can use data and analytics, or even artificial intelligence, to assess their practice’s performance and help make strategic decisions.

What are the specific pain points that digital transformation can help address in a medical practice?

We see that medical practices in both rural and urban settings often have the same challenges or similar pain points, but many of these pain points are exasperated when in a rural environment or treating patients living in rural areas.

One of the most common pain points we see is financial viability: having enough money to keep their doors open, their staff employed and providing necessary services to their rural patients. Digital transformation has a huge impact on financial viability.

Another pain point that we see a lot is patient engagement. Engaging patients in their health contributes positively to their outcomes, and it also helps improve the relationship that providers and patients have with each other.

We’re moving toward this environment where consumerism in healthcare is more at the forefront than ever before. I think it will be a big game-changer to improve your relationship with your patients and engage them with technology and their health.

Another pain point we see in rural practices — just as in urban and suburban practices — is employee burnout, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. That heightened the problem of employee burnout and the difficulties that create and trying to manage a medical practice and keep it financially viable.

Technology can help streamline processes and take some of the stress and the workload off employees.

What are the obstacles that prevent a medical practice from engaging in a digital transformation?

One that we commonly see, especially in rural areas, is fear of the unknown. There’s always going to be this overwhelming challenge when it comes to any change, especially when integrating technology into a space that is not used to relying on technology in their day-to-day processes.

Hand in hand with that is disruption of the current workflow. When you think about a workflow in healthcare, that is directly related to patient health and patients’ well-being in their life. For medical practices, disruption in workflow can directly impact their ability to care for patients, so it’s very important to pay attention to and address.

You have to be mindful about handling this disruption and ensuring that your patients are not negatively impacted.

Especially in rural areas, cost and the lack of finances to invest in technology is a large obstacle. Rural practices are often operating on small margins with just enough to keep their doors open. The idea of investing more money upfront in technology that could lead to cost savings in the future is certainly an obstacle they face.

Managing a healthcare facility is more challenging than it has ever been. Based on your experience or research, can you please share with our readers a few examples of how digital transformation can help a medical practice to provide better care? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to deliver care remotely. Telehealth is a great way for a medical practice to incorporate technology into its workflows to safely deliver care in a way that may be more convenient or comfortable for the patient.

It’s not always easy for people to travel to a doctor’s office, take time off work, and find childcare. In rural areas, patients may not have the infrastructure to travel to their doctor’s office or get there quickly. Telehealth offers solutions to many problems that rural America — and even urban practices — face.

Another example of digital transformation is using data and analytics. Historically, the healthcare industry has been operating in a very reactive type of environment. There’s a benefit in engaging your patients proactively with preventative care screenings and incorporating behavioral change before they get to the point where they need advanced medical care.

Technology gives medical practices the ability to look at their data analytics and trends to make decisions. You can see which patients may be at risk for a particular disease, and if you can catch that early on, you can incorporate health screenings, preventative care or lifestyle changes in a patient’s care plan.

Can you share a few examples of how digital interactions or digital intake processes can help create a frictionless patient experience and increase access for patients?

Telehealth increases access due to infrastructure barriers and socioeconomic barriers.

Digital intake, for example, using technology such as online forms and collecting information ahead of the visit instead of a patient sitting in the waiting room, is especially important during a pandemic like COVID-19 showed us. Another example is using a kiosk in the front office, which enables patients to enter information, freeing up the front office staff to handle other tasks.

Another example is increasing patient access to their own medical records, history, and care. With the CURES Act and a push for interoperability and preventing information blocking, the industry is moving towards instant access to up-to-date patient information, leading to better continuity of care between different medical professionals and empowering patients to be involved in their healthcare journey.

Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Effective Medical Practice” and why.

  1. I think people tend to forget that healthcare is a business, and medical practices do have to operate as a business. Make sure you have a mindset that everything about the business centers around the patient, what they need, and what works best for them. That is a great start to creating an effective medical practice.
  2. Pay very close attention to your workflows and how efficient they are. You should have smooth and deliberate workflows that are well documented; policies and procedures that formalize these workflows are necessary for a highly effective practice, so these workflows are standardized and repeatable even if you have a turnover or if you have people subbing in at different roles at different times.
  3. In today’s ever-changing healthcare environment, it’s critically important that practices and healthcare administrators and providers remain flexible and adaptable to changes. We’ve seen a lot of different regulatory changes throughout the years, and it can be challenging to keep up with them.
  4. Incorporating data analytics and reporting into your medical practice is important. There’s so much that numbers and data can tell you about how your practice is performing, where it’s underperforming, and where it’s overperforming. Being able to rely on data to tell that story is so important, and it can take a lot of the guesswork out of running a business.
  5. Investing in your people and giving them the training and education they need to thrive is critical. Work with organizations that will sponsor a staff member to go to a conference and learn from what other practices are doing. This also helps with the burnout aspect. We’ve seen, especially in the rural environment, that it helps when one practice can connect with another practice, talk about their challenges, and bounce ideas off of one another. It’s truly such an exciting experience to see practices collaborate with each other and learn from one another.

Because of your role, you are a person of significant influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your ideas can trigger?

I’m passionate about getting younger people involved in the political space and participating in the process. I like to approach this from a non-partisan aspect, connecting with other people who are both like-minded and who think differently, and learning how I can be involved in issues that are important to me.

I’m also very passionate about rural health. I grew up in rural Georgia, and I saw how being a minority in a rural environment created a lot of barriers to accessing health care.

I think there’s always a misconception about working in rural health. It may not seem as shiny and glamorous as working in an urban setting or for a large company. I’m really passionate about the fact that there’s so much opportunity in rural health, and building up these rural communities is really important. Even if you don’t live in a rural environment, you can still contribute to the rural mission in many different ways through your career or volunteer opportunities.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please follow me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/reeyapatel13 or Azalea Health at AzaleaHealth.com.

This was truly meaningful! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise!

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Authority Magazine

Authority Magazine

Authority Magazine is devoted to sharing in-depth interviews, featuring people who are authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech