As part of a new interview series with healthcare leaders across the country, the Olive team had the chance to interview Brian Carlson about the biggest challenges facing healthcare today. Previous to his current role as Senior Director of Patient Experience at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, he was the COO/CEO of a physician group practice and a Practice Manager at Northwestern. Before that, he received a master’s degree in health services administration and an MBA from Xavier University.
Improving patient Care, healthcare technology & AI
Q: To begin, tell us about your background in healthcare and how you became Senior Director of Patient Experience at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
I took the traditional route of college followed by graduate school, and in college I found healthcare was something I was very interested in. I considered doing pre-med, but ultimately got my undergraduate degree in psychology and went straight to graduate school where I got a master’s degree in health services administration and an MBA.
One of the greatest things about the program was the year-long required fellowship at a health system. That fellowship was where I could get mentored by a seasoned administrator and gain experience with how our complex healthcare system works in a protected environment. I didn’t have decision making authority, but I was put on projects to help advance the mission of the organization and got a lot of experience doing so. I think any administrator entering the field should really go through a residency or fellowship program.
From there, I got my first job in group practice management and then moved on to be COO/CEO of another physician group practice and then I was recruited to Vanderbilt in 2007. I started as an administrator for the Eye Institute and moved into the patient experience role in 2014, where I’m helping the system figure out how to create a consistent experience for the patients and families that need our help.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the untapped opportunities to improve patient experience today?
The field of patient experience is evolving and I’m starting to think of it as just, “experience.”
What I mean by that is that healthcare is complex to start with and dependent on the skills and expertise of our workforce to deliver care. So, the experience our workforce has every day has a profound impact on the care they’re able to deliver. In my mind, I’m broadening the term of experience because we need to consider the relationship between the patients and families that walk through our doors, and the experience our workforce is having every single day as they do their jobs.
Healthcare is a calling – people come into this profession because they want to help people. But sometimes we get in our own way and make it difficult for those who are really skilled to do the most effective job that they can. The untapped potential is looking into the experience of our workforce and how can we help make that experience better, so they can do the best job possible.
Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry’s challenges overnight, which one would it be?
If I had to choose one challenge to eliminate, I immediately think of our need to, in a consistent fashion, share data across organizations and across individuals. We have so many restrictions on the way we can share data – and we have so much of it. If we could unmask that data, in a secure and safe way, yet make it available whether it’s payer, provider, patient, or consumer space, and really cumulate that data, we could put some profound learnings into place to understand what it is that drives us as humans.
Ultimately: How can we anticipate ahead of time if someone’s heading down a path, and how can we prevent that from happening? Thus decreasing the cost of healthcare.
Other industries have figured out how to share and use data in a constructive way to learn about their users. They’re trying to sell a product, but were trying to help an individual, so the opportunity is significant.
Q: How do you see artificial intelligence in healthcare impacting the patient experience?
Our ability to use our data in an effective fashion is what will enable us to learn from those past experiences. At the root level, it is the machine taking data to understand and predict what will happen in the future to improve care. Think from an experience standpoint – AI can help both internally and externally.
On the internal side, how do we make our workforce processes more streamlined by using AI to automate repetitive tasks, to use the machine to generate some very basic administrative functions that today require people to do it manually, or become backlogged as employees never have the capacity to work through them. They do not always know what to work first, or they need to hunt and find additional information to assist them. Can we get the right data in front of the right eyes when it is needed? This could be in everything from eligibility checks to claims processing and to the front office functions.
Within the clinical side, the possibilities are limitless from using AI to accurately diagnose and reduce errors to developing new medicines and treatments.
On the external side, let’s consider the consumer space. B2C companies use data to predict habits around who will need what and when. In the healthcare space, you can start to imagine the experience where we know as a health system someone’s potential needs in a way that prevents, for instance, their need to go to the emergency room or prevents them from having to receive additional care down the road.
We recently conducted a study here at Vanderbilt, and the number one piece of feedback we received from our patients is that they expect that we already know them. I think our society has a growing expectation that if I provide you data or insights about me I expect you to do something with it. There’s an expectation that healthcare is technologically advanced and an assumption that we have data to make predictions. While we’re heading down that road clinically with genetics and DNA, from an experience standpoint, we’re not there yet. The challenge to the industry is, how do we create a system of learning that can advance the skills of our providers to help predict and prevent problems in the future?
Q: Tell us about a person who mentored, inspired, or impacted you during your career.
I’ve been lucky to have so many individuals mentor me and impact me throughout my career, the difficult part would be choosing just one. But the common thread between them all is, availability – they’ve all willingly made themselves available to me over both successes and failures throughout my career. They were there to listen and understand, and then provided a direction or pose a question to help me move forward. Throughout my career, I knew I could reach out and call them, and they’d always answer the phone. They also built trust, and that trust was a two-way street. I knew I could be vulnerable with them and in turn, I knew they would always be honest with me. Lastly, they took pride in my work and I think got fulfillment in my success. As I’ve mentored people in my career, I’ve tried to bring those same attributes to the table, as well.