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Delivering compassionate digital healthcare experiences

Fail Faster

Episode 426


25 minutes

In this episode, we sit down with Chris Neuharth, the Vice President of Experience and Digital Innovation at Children’s Wisconsin.

We explore the journey from his background in software development to his current role at the forefront of healthcare technology. We discuss the evolution of user experience, the power of co-designing solutions with families and care teams, and the role of empathy in shaping impactful healthcare solutions. Join us as we uncover how technology is not only mitigating anxiety but also redefining the way families navigate and manage their children’s healthcare needs. Discover the latest trends, successes, and challenges in the realm of digital health as we journey towards more accessible, empathetic, and integrated care.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hey, Chris, welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you?

Chris: I’m doing great. How are you doing? 

Vandana: I am doing well. Thank you so much. I’m very excited to learn more about your world, Chris. Let’s dive into your background for our listeners. So we know who we are talking to and where you’re coming from. Anything that you would like to add? 

Chris: Sure. Yeah. So where I’m at currently and then how I got to that. So I’m currently the vice president of experience in digital innovation at Children’s Wisconsin, which was a long journey from where I started. So my background, I actually began as a software developer, that was my origination kind of into the tech world, I started in financial technology. 

So working in banking, online banking platforms, doing development of bank websites, and just every you know, bill payment, e statements, everything kind of in that that realm. And while I was in that, you know, I found that I worked with a number of really fantastic developers, and I realized, I am a good developer, I’m not a great developer. But I had the opportunity at an early age to get exposed to the world of user experience. And you know, we were a company early on that had a, a usability lab. 

And I participated in my first few sessions on that and found like, this is my passion. I’m always asking the why questions, I want to get into software design and user research, and had the opportunity to grow for many years. And in that organization, my pivot from there was then I had an opportunity to bring that that same sort of user experience focus into a smaller company that was in the health insurance. And this was right about the time that President Obama was coming into office. And I thought, well, you know, the banking industry wasn’t looking great at that time. But there was a lot of talk about health insurance and how they might be changing that. 

And it was eye opening because I didn’t realize how much there wasn’t a market for health insurance. Realistically, you have to try as an individual back in 2008 to go buy health insurance. It was a friendly product, you had all sorts of crazy riders that would go on it. If you’re planning to have a baby, you had to add a special rider onto the package. So there was just so much that went around it. And so I had the opportunity to build a user experience function for that organization, and was there for eight to nine years. And it was a wild ride. 

Because then, if you remember, that’s right about the time the ACA was passed, we started working on health insurance exchanges, wild growth from all of that world. And I learned a lot in just, you know, how to scale up user experience team, how to then transition into product management, product strategy, work, and had had a great time. And then my last kind of pivot was into the world of healthcare itself. And I never saw myself in healthcare. I actually joked with our chief medical officer on one of my first days I was getting a tour. I was like, I actually have terrible hospital anxiety. So the idea of working in a hospital is unique. But I think it actually helps me bring that kind of that parent family perspective to the work that I do and helping people with those anxieties. So it’s been a really fantastic journey from all the way from financial technology to insurance to healthcare. 

Vandana: That is true. What a great way to kind of come to where you are finding yourself today. I wanted to touch upon what are some of the things that you carried forward to these roles as you moved, you know, into these domains? 

Chris: Yeah, I think the Yeah, I learned a lot just from how important customer research is in defining, you know, what you’re going to build from a software perspective, or where you’re going to invest or who you’re going to partner with. There’s so many times that that helped us influence the work that we were doing in the health insurance space, it really helped. We had to we had almost wrote the playbook back when I was working there, because everything had been designed around professional users, you know, health insurance brokers that knew what they were looking for. And turns out that consumers are not rational human beings, right? 

They’re not, you know, they don’t have a spreadsheet of exactly how they’re going to calculate their insurance costs. And, and nor do they understand these products. And I think that’s been a similar theme as I get into healthcare, there are all sorts of wonderful ideas out there all sorts of wonderful new innovations in digital health and technology. And they really they need that consumer lens and understanding of how how, how people engage and how that integrates their in any that solving some sort of job to be done for them. Or is it just something that your doctor wants you to do? Because there’s sometimes a gap between those two things. Yeah. And so when you’re bringing this design thinking to healthcare, what are some of the why’s that you’re asking now that nobody was asking before?

Yeah, you know, we, so when I start, so I’ve been at Children’s Wisconsin now for over five years. And when when I started, we knew that there was an opportunity, you know, there was a lot of talk about telemedicine, there was a lot of investment in digital health, but you know, we didn’t exactly know where that was best suited. And so we took a step back and said, let’s look at some sort of basic customer journeys that happen, right? It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve got a sick child, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Should I head to the emergency room? Should I book an appointment with my primary care doctor? And what does that journey look like? 

And then we would map those journeys out. That’s actually where we took a step back and said, let’s before we get too involved in building apps and buying telemedicine solutions, like, let’s look at that core journey. And it was enlightening, because you could see the difference between what we thought a customer journey was, right, which sort of started that when we had an interaction with them to them, what they saw their journey as and there was so much built in the for parents, how do I make the right decisions, right? I don’t want to overreact. I don’t want to underreact. How do I, you know, make good decisions about where to take my child. And so that that really helped us actually focus on a multi year roadmap, where we looked back at those and said, Alright, we need to people help people with that decision making, we need to provide them the tools to get care for their children. And it really, I think helped us avoid certain investments, right, like, and helped us. And so I always describe user research as sort of a risk mitigation strategy, as much as anything, just trying to save yourself from going the wrong direction. 

Vandana: Right, right. And what are some of the directions that you’ve been to? Like, could you share a successful endeavor, and maybe one not so successful? 

Chris: Yeah, I think I will say just maybe these are still connected and sort of like what failures are, if I can frame them that way, towards, you know, how to have a more integrated strategy. So one thing that I found when I entered the world of digital health is there is an app for everything. And for every, you know, condition that might be out there, you know, whether it’s diabetes, or, you know, orthopnea, or whatever it might be, there’s, there’s a solution for it. And sometimes these can feel exciting, right? Like, we know, let’s go build a one off solution for each condition. 

And even to the extent of, you know, we had an app for, you know, symptom checking for finding the right side of care, all of them individually are fantastic, right? They’re great ideas. And they when when utilized, could be really effective, what we found was that they need to be integrated together, right? So this all has to be part of the way that you interact. And when I think about other major brands outside of healthcare, you don’t have point solutions, right? You have a single Marriott app, a single Starbucks app, right? Amazon’s probably a bad example, because there’s a few, right? You can be a different prime and things like that. But we didn’t have that, right? There was no single way of working with your your healthcare organization. And so one of our successes was was working to bring all of that together, we were actually able to take four or five different applications, and bring them together into a unified Children’s Wisconsin app. And that done, it was it was co designed with our families, right? 

We regularly met and shared mockups and design iterations and just solved around their needs, and then figured out how the technology fit in to that. So I guess that’s a long winded way of saying some of the failures are we weren’t immune to chasing those, you know, those those point solutions, right? We tried them out, we thought, oh, pilot projects, you know, are a great way of testing this out. And it’s very aligned to when you think about the practice of medicine, right? 

You want to try, you know, sort of that incremental approach of what’s the smallest proof that I can say that this was successful or not. And oftentimes, pilots in terms of technology, just don’t prove that out, because they’re not integrated to the way that you’d actually experience them. And so you have to have just that, that lens of just how is this gonna, how’s it gonna weave into somebody’s day to day life? And then so once you did that, is that an engaging platform for everybody in the family? Or Yeah, is something that people are adapting easily? Or are you seeing some challenges there? 

We are seeing very good adoption. I mean, with anything, just getting awareness of solutions is a challenge, right and getting people converted. But as we’ve gotten families onto that platform, we see really continued engagement and where it’s gotten most exciting is that it’s getting back to solving that problem that I talked about at the beginning of how do I navigate my care. And so, you know, part of that, that bigger goal is making sure that, you know, if you’ve got a cold, we don’t want you to end up in the emergency department, we want you to head to your primary care doctor or in urgent care, or, you know, using telemedicine solutions and quit. 

And that’s been probably the biggest explosion, right in my five years is, you know, when the pandemic hit, we went from very small pilot projects to 10s of 1000s of telemedicine visits overnight. And we learned a lot through that process. But now I think we’ve narrowed back in where you’re seeing people understand how to use it, what types of things that you know, whether it’s a rash or pink eye that sort of perfectly fits for that type of solution versus things that families just know, well, this is gonna need a physical exam, so I’ll need to go in. 

So just seeing that change in behavior where we can, you know, keep that if you don’t need to head in, let’s not send you in. Let’s not get you into a waiting room with lots of other sick kids, right? That’s not going to be a pleasant experience for you. So what what does it look like for somebody who is new, you know, like how how are people interacting with your with your apps, like as a family, so they are, they’re all you’re always there, like walk me through that process of 

Yeah, so this was a key design decision for us, which is that, you know, like, we think about patient portals today, there, there’s a lot of gatekeeping around it, it’s, you know, you can only get access to this after you’ve had a visit with a doctor, and then it’s a way to, you know, view your medical information. And we knew it was important to say that all of that’s really important and needs to be a part of this. But it also needs to be very easy from the front door perspective. So immediately, when you when you download our app, you have access to parent tools, as we call them, whether it’s, you know, symptom checking, to figure out the right site of care, first aid advice, I tell you, some of the simplest ones are even just dosage tables, how to adjust medications back to a child. 

And those then direct you into services that you don’t need to be an established patient, right, whether it’s our urgent care services are, we have a mental behavioral health walk-in clinic, huge need in that community to help address those needs. Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, that our online urgent care, our video visits, so you have access to all of those. And with little friction, because we need to get you to those the right care for your child. 

After that, when you’ve established, then we also can engage with you in a much deeper way. So we actually integrate patient education to that it’s prescribed to you so you can continue to care for your child at home as well. But we started the whole build and the journey with how do we how do we make it as frictionless as possible at the front end of that process? 

Vandana: Super. And that sounds such a great, great way to, you know, get into people’s daily digital health routines, right? So as a family itself, too. So what are some of the trends that you’re seeing as people are becoming more and more adaptive to the apps and some of the things that they have been able to get? What are the trends that you’re seeing in the children’s health care space? 

Chris: Yeah, I think there’s been a lot of talk about, you know, do these digital tools? Is it a fad? You know, what’s going to last? How will people engage? And I think, you know, telemedicine is a great example of that. There’s this almost false dichotomy that gets posed of like, is it better to have an in person visit or a virtual visit? And I think what we’re finding is it’s not an or, it’s an and, right? Like, there are many cases, certainly where you’re out, you’re going to need lab testing, imaging, there’s reasons we need physical exams. And then there’s lots of interactions you have with a health system that are maybe it’s a post surgical follow up where it’s more of a conversation, or it’s just a check in between visits. 

Maybe you’re, you know, you’re managing ADHD is an example. And those are more well suited sometimes for just, you know, not getting you pack your kids in your car, get parking, get to take a day off of work to go have this visit, maybe it’s just a 15 minute discussion you need to have. So I think the trend is more towards really understanding how virtual options integrate. An aspect of that is what type of care can be conducted at home. There’s a large rise in just what we call remote patient monitoring, which is really can mean a lot of different things. For us, it’s you know, as a baby, maybe transitions from our, our NICU to home. 

And maybe we still want to be following up on that child and make sure that they’re growing and developing and being able to enter in some of those vitals and have a nurse check back at them. To be able to do that in an integrated way, so that you’re entering these these vitals in at home, and then they’re monitoring that and flagging it to see if there’s any concerns completely changes the anxiety level of a parent as you to manage. And I think like, we see that trend long term as you just more patient empowerment at home and being able to kind of integrate your health care. It’s not just a visit based model, right? We’re only seeing doctor once a year things like it’s just a little bit more of a continuous relationship. The insurance world has to catch up with that a little bit to say like, okay, how does that from a billing perspective, but I think we think that’s the right way to care for people over time. 

Vandana: I love that. Yeah, I think that is the way to go. And I mean, we we still have to a lot of us have to catch up to people who are with younger families, there’s this segment, an age group that is only going to hospitals and cares when they are sick. Not even preventative happens that much. So yeah, I love all of the stuff that you’re talking about, especially with the children’s health care, that space is is needing the digital so badly. And I love how you also said that the it kind of manages the anxiety. Is there anything else that you want to add, where you have been able to bring that anxiety levels down and people are thankful that any testimonials any examples of things that you’re seeing? 

Chris: Yeah, I think, you know, we see that in so many areas, I will say that the area that I’m probably most passionate about, and I think there’s the greatest need for, you know, across the country is in mental behavioral health care for for children. And it’s a very multifaceted, complex solution. Because, you know, when you you mentioned, you know, just seeking out for sick care, I think that is especially true for mental health, where many people don’t really identify or hide it until there’s a serious problem. 

And when you think about that, for a child, it’s even more complex as trying to assess we know what’s normal growth and development. How is that aligning to the conversations and the relationship they have with their parents? Or do they have the right tools to understand, you know, kind of that social emotional learning? And so we’ve been investing a lot in just, you know, how do we provide education and tools for families, access to resources, and then really connection to care, right and and making that so it’s part of your health care journey. It’s not something that is only sought out when you have a problem, but it’s part of just, you know, just like we do with any well check visits, right, or just our own physical health. It’s a constant process that you go through with your child. So that’s the area I think we have, we’ve done some things, and we’re going to do a lot, lot more in the coming years. 

Vandana: Super cool. And that’s, that’s what I was going to ask. So what is exciting for you that you’re working on right now, Chris, that is about to get launched? Any any shares there? 

Chris: Yeah, we’re, we’re actually transitioning to kind of our what do we call our 2.0 launch of our app. And that is now getting into that world of the first problem we saw when we talked with families was like, how do I navigate care, which I talked about? The second problem was, how do you deal with the wealth of information that is out there and how to organize it? And what is good health care resources, right? So just popping into Google and have finding things and often just heightens anxiety. 

So what we have kind of, you know, what we’ve had our family, family health engagement aspects, the app, which really is searchable databases of good clinical information, articles, resources about, you know, your children’s health care. And we’ve actually combined that with this idea of prescribed health content. So when you go into the app, you’ll have that ability to see things that resources that your care team has said, this, this would apply either. 

It’s, you know, managing that condition that we talked about at the visit, or it might be something else, right, that, you know, here’s some some growth and development things that we want you to consider over the next year, or other resources, even social resources, you know, whether it’s access to healthy eating and food, goods, insecurities, there’s so many possibilities in terms of consumer engagement. So I think just I’m generally excited about that world of intersection between consumer engagement and good health care and how how those can can really benefit each other. 

Vandana: I love that. That is like, I feel like you’re right in that very good spot of, you know, uncovering some of the really good advantages of digital health care, and especially for this segment, who for for younger kids and and families who get annoyed, and it’s just so frustrating, you know, when you’re not able to get the right kind of care. So there’s amazing, amazing work and amazing space that you’re in and where where human centric design and empathy and coming up with the right use cases where a person or a family needs to be in person and remote. I mean, that itself is huge space, to be able to sift those and categorize the right way itself is is huge. Yeah, is there anything else, Chris, that that you would like to share that you that has made you successful, and maybe would be good for some people in your shoes? 

Chris: Well, I think the last thing I’ll mention, and you kind of brought up the word empathy. And I think what we found is that, you know, when when I came into Children’s, I wanted to bring a little different approach to technology, which was that technology should be driven by consumer needs, and we should always start with consumer research. That has expanded since where now we’ve we’ve actually come together, and I’m now responsible for patient experience as well at the hospital. So we, we look at that all together. And, you know, from how do we measure patient experience? 

How do we find digital and physical and, you know, training opportunities to improve experiences, but I think I’m just such a firm believer in my through my experiences, that strategy is most effectively led through that consumer lens. As a starting point, I think the thing I, I really appreciate about healthcare is that that’s a dual aspect is it’s consumer led, but also really understanding a lot from your care teams. And most effective voices I often have and in designing things is working with our, our doctors and our nurses and understanding what are all the things you wanted to do, maybe you just need a more effective way to deliver things. And so it’s, it’s a great space to be in. And I think just a really exciting world over the next five to 10 years. 

Vandana: Super cool. And I feel that there is more, more room for these roles too, right? Like that this was not the case a few years ago. And I feel that if the organization is open to to kind of coming up with these innovative solutions, where people are heard, they feel they’re heard that everybody right, right, internally, as who you touch, that also is amazing. So how is that? Or was this something that was given to you? Or did you have to work towards kind of making that space in the stakeholder in the decision making room in the conference’s room to kind of give them that advice that, hey, we need to think a little differently about this? 

Chris: I think it really has to be proven, right? Like this, we had to have some of those wins to say, all right, this, this, this is a good, you know, as we’ve developed these solutions and found it to be more effective. But I think it’s also so aligned to the core DNA of something like a children’s hospital is, we are so have, we’re, we’re fantastic at delivering, you know, compassionate experiences, that’s been, you know, part of our DNA forever. And pivoting to the concept of, well, we should always be co designing solutions with our families and with our providers and our their teams is very natural, right? It’s just it maybe just making that connection was was let’s see. 

Vandana: I love that. Thank you so much, Chris. I think we are at time if there’s anything that you want to bring back to the podcast, as you’re going through these innovations and launches, please let us know. And we would love to talk more about it. 

Chris: Appreciate it. Thanks for having me on. 

Vandana: Absolutely. Thank you. 

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