Health Tech: Mark Luck Olson On How RecoveryOne’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With Dave Philistin
The spark of a new idea: In our case, it came from a world class orthopedic surgeon who, through his own misfortune, faced a series of brutal surgeries and chronic pain himself. Once he finally sat on “the other side of table” as a patient, he could see how orthopedic recovery for consumers could be transformed through the power of digital recovery.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Luck Olson.
Mark Luck Olson is CEO of RecoveryOne, a leading digital health innovator dedicated to improving health outcomes for recovery from musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries of all types and reducing costs. Mark is a 30-year healthcare veteran who has committed his career to improving healthcare costs and quality. He has built a reputation as a health tech strategist who can unleash an organization’s potential. He earned his undergraduate and MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Business.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I was born in the Midwest, which I always say is filled with the ‘what you see is what you get’ type of people. I am definitely one of those types of people. My family moved to California when I was a toddler, and I grew up in the Bay Area. I am one of four siblings and very fortunate to have a brother and sisters that I cherish greatly, and who have helped shape me. When I got older, I decided I didn’t quite love the culture on the West Coast because it felt more about optics than substance. I left to go to school in Boston before settling back in Chicago.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m not sure I have one specific story. I often think about how underperforming our healthcare system is to the people that it is supposed to serve. It’s very expensive, and most people, including providers, do not like the experience. On top of that, our healthcare system produces mixed results when it comes to health outcomes. It frustrates, and even angers me, that the cost and quality of healthcare in the U.S. is so poor, while the resources for high quality care are available. There are so many people that needlessly suffer. For example, in the U.S., one in two individuals will have a musculoskeletal (MSK) injury, such as a back or knee injury. The problem only gets worse as we age with three out of four older Americans suffering from an MSK condition. Yet, there are a fraction of people that are able to get the help they need, often due to cost or the ability to access care. That’s what makes me get up every morning. I want to make healthcare more accessible and affordable to anyone that needs care.
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? Can you share a story about that?
The person that I am grateful for was Tom Main. He was my mentor who eventually also became my business partner. He and I were both partners in a company called ChapterHouse and we shared a vision to improve the cost and quality of healthcare in the US. He was someone who taught me to embrace passions and to pick yourself up after a failure. In 2018 he died tragically, and I still think about him every single day. He is why I do what I do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is actually framed on my desk. It is Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech. It speaks to how we need to be more than critics. The people that actually create change are the ones who, despite failing repeatedly, keep fighting until we get it right. I see it being relevant to everyone pursuing a passion in life. For me, that is RecoveryOne and improving healthcare.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Humility and authenticity. People want to be heard and honored. The birthplace of good relationships is a genuine connection. True power rarely comes from strength. I’ve found this time and time again through clients and my team. If someone has a thought on what should be different, I want to hear it. Everyone’s life experience brings a new viewpoint to the table.
- Persistence. Change is hard. Most of the time, we will fail 9 out of 10 times, if not more. If you get discouraged easily, maybe take up gardening.
- Curiosity. No matter how long you’ve been in business or how much expertise you have, you never know enough. The market is constantly changing. I think you have to be curious about the unmet needs and your own company’s competencies. Then tirelessly begin searching for answers. Things like conferences and meeting people with similar interests are essential. That is how you are going to learn. When you do that, that is where the magic happens.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
The main problem RecoveryOne is trying to solve is to alleviate pain from musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries without contributing to the prevalence of surgery. Within the U.S., there are 99 million instances annually where someone is faced with an MSK disorder. That could range from lower back pain to carpal tunnel syndrome to a rotator cuff tear. Each year, one out of four people faced with these conditions is referred to an orthopedist by their primary care provider. These orthopedists are primarily trained for surgery. This leads to a high surgical rate which contributes to the US spending $100 billion in treatment that research has shown to have little to no value. It is a lot of pain and waste across the board. What we’ve created is an easier, more affordable way to connect people with physical therapists to decrease that pain without seeing a surgeon. By increasing positive outcomes through our technology, we have healthier individuals who aren’t stuck losing wages or spending paid time off recovering from medical treatments because we’ve found a way to reduce pain while allowing them to continue their everyday lives.
How do you think your technology can address this?
There are a few ways our technology addresses this issue. The most prominent benefit is accessibility. Patients can do these exercises from anywhere, at any time. However, we like discussing how technology has allowed us to provide everything required to take our patients on a journey from the onset of the disorder until they get back to everyday life. Typically, of the 10 percent of people who are eligible for treatment, only 3 percent finish. There are many reasons for this, from financial strain to not being able to take time off of work, to the location of a physical therapist. RecoveryOne is working to increase that 3 percent through behavioral modification. We’ve focused on creating an engaging toolkit so that individuals are involved in their own recovery. Our health coaches provide further behavioral change support by creating a schedule for patients and then making sure they are consistently doing their exercises. We’ll reach out if we’ve noticed someone has stopped doing their therapy, and help them work through the next steps. Perhaps we need to adjust specific exercises or create a more flexible schedule. Technology has allowed us the benefit of supporting our patients more than a once-a-week meeting with the PT. So, overall, we can provide more support for our patients. Engagement is a huge part of our solution and we work hard to keep people inspired and motivated. It is why I tend to bristle when RecoveryOne is described as Next Gen PT. That does not feel like it encapsulates everything we do. I like to think about ourselves as being in the recovery from physical injury business.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
The fact people suffer needlessly. I don’t believe one particular instance drew me to it. It was just seeing the same story in so many forms that reiterated our healthcare system was, and is, still in need of change. I have noticed that most of what is happening in healthcare is the transformation of chronic diseases like diabetes or congestive heart failure, or even behavioral health. Musculoskeletal diseases aren’t like that. They are episodic, which means they are contained in a way. There are a lot of specific metrics associated with it that allow us to navigate these episodes much more easily compared to other healthcare categories. I can tell you the scores of all our knee recoveries and every clinician in the space would understand what that means and interpret how good we are. I love that.
How do you think this might change the world?
It will change the world by being the first step to change how we perceive physical health. Recently, there has been a reawakening in the mental health space. When I was a kid, we didn’t talk about things like anxiety or depression. There was a stigma around those topics, and it was not as widely accepted. Now we’ve reached a point where we can have open and honest conversations about how individualized mental health is and understand it is different for everyone. Something that might work for one person might not work for another. We need to have that same transparency with our physical health. Sometimes we need to adjust what we’re doing and think more about our approach. It needs to be more than doing X, Y, and Z to be healthy. If you are still in pain while doing those things, there is clearly a piece missing. So, I think through things like RecoveryOne, we will be able to reorient ourselves with how we address those issues in an open and honest way.
I think, especially when it comes to healthcare, it is important to remember that we shouldn’t necessarily be replacing the systems we have in place with technology. We can’t make everything fully digital, and it will be detrimental in the long run if we try to do so. Ultimately, the future of healthcare needs to be a collaboration. Innovative technology needs to supplement healthcare, not replace it. The biggest drawback, I believe, would be becoming too focused on the digital that we forget person-to-person care. The future should be hybrid to ensure you’re getting the best of both worlds, thus the best care possible.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- The spark of a new idea: In our case, it came from a world class orthopedic surgeon who, through his own misfortune, faced a series of brutal surgeries and chronic pain himself. Once he finally sat on “the other side of table” as a patient, he could see how orthopedic recovery for consumers could be transformed through the power of digital recovery.
- The ignorance of the road ahead: I’m not sure anybody would actually try to drive transformative change if they began their journey with perfect knowledge of the institutional obstacles that would have to be overcome. It takes a certain naivete to want to start the journey to begin with.
- A big and compelling problem: In our world of musculoskeletal care, there are one hundred million people each year in the U.S. alone who needlessly face the pain and dysfunction of musculoskeletal injury. We all know somebody affected by this, if not ourselves. We can all relate. For our team, it becomes a mission and a great sense of purpose to change this reality. But you can’t create transformative change without a meaningful problem that negatively impacts lots of people to begin with.
- A diverse team: Some people love ideas. Others are gifted in converting ideas to action. Or evaluating the merits of competing approaches. Still others are great at detailed and repetitive execution. Great companies need all of those skills and more, and they bring together a combination of talents into an integrated whole. The consumers we serve naturally come from all walks of life, different gender identities, a mix of race, a mix of culture, and many others. If we are to understand and serve these heterogeneous groups, then we must be diverse in identity and experience ourselves.
- A higher sense of purpose: Attracting and retaining talent in this market are as hard as they have ever been. Competing on money is ultimately a losing proposition. And having people come and go is too painful. The only sustainable recipe is higher purpose–the sense of being on an important mission together than actually matters (for real). A paycheck may be necessary, but for the thinking person, and the aspirational person (the kind of people we need), it’s rarely enough. There has to be a higher order purpose. It doesn’t have to be the same thing for everybody. Meaning could come from the connection of working with people you care about. Or the sense of achievement from helping those in need or making a real difference. Or it could just come from the satisfaction of a difficult job well done. Regardless of the specifics, there has to be a certain “buzz” that fills the culture with energy. Otherwise, the work alone is too much. Life is too short. Without higher purpose, what are we left with?
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
This will be the world they live in for the rest of their lives. It will be the world their families live in and potentially their kids. There is so much going on today that it is easy to find something you are passionate about, and from there, it only feels right to try to make it the best possible thing in the world — because, to you, it is. But these positive things in the world aren’t always something you’re entitled to. You must work for it and start humble, learning as much as possible through a variety of experiences by keeping your ears and eyes open so that you’re ready to make a change when the time comes.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
This would be a table for four. Along with me, I’d invite three people– Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, and Ben Horowitz. I doubt any of them would be talking to me because they’d be busy conversing with each other.
I would choose Brené because her work on vulnerability is the place to start for knowledge of self, which is how all great leadership is rooted. And she’s darn funny.
Simon because his discovery that inspiring action comes from a higher purpose (the power of why) is such a powerful truth. Like all fundamental truths, it seems so simple and obvious, but only after it’s explained to you. Brilliant.
And Ben Horowitz because his book, The Hard Things About Hard Things, is the truest expose on the real-life of a transformative leader. The excitement, the confusion, the passion, and the loneliness all wrapped up together. It’s like the contradiction of having children–the best, the worst, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.