For one digital executive, an online 'Ask Me Anything' did not go as planned

When Providence St. Joseph Health Chief Digital Innovation Officer Aaron Martin hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum a week ago, he opened up the floor to any and all questions—and got more than he bargained for.

While some commenters remained on topic, such as asking questions about how lean startups can collaborate with big healthcare companies, the forum quickly turned heated as commenters—many claiming to be former employees—pushed Martin to answer questions about previous layoffs and issues with the group’s work culture, according to GeekWire.

Following the AMA forum and responding to GeekWire’s inquiry, Providence officials confirmed there were two rounds of layoffs last year and outlined steps the group is taking to improve its overall culture and boost diversity in technical roles. As hospitals and health systems look to engage with patients and others outside of their organizations, Martin’s experience reveals the unpredictable nature of engaging on social media or an online forum like Reddit where users can post anonymously.

“It wasn’t what Aaron was expecting,” Melissa Tizon, associate vice president of national communication with Providence St. Joseph Health, told FierceHealthcare. Martin was not immediately available for an interview, but Tizon said he used the Reddit AMA platform because it is a good way to connect with technology experts and technology entrepreneurs.

“Aaron got some good conversations on that too," she said. “He handled the questions well; he did not shy away from them.”

RELATED: Providence St. Joseph Health announces new $150M healthcare fund

Providence Ventures, a 200-person digital innovation group, including about 60 engineers, oversees about $300 million as the investment arm of the Renton, Washington-based healthcare provider. Martin, a former Amazon executive, has been leading the group for the past three years.

Providence’s human resources team, after interviewing 30 employees to investigate complaints a year ago, found no evidence of discrimination but unearthed what Martin described as an “unacceptable culture” within the group, GeekWire reported. The company said it dismissed some members of the product and engineering teams who had caused problems and has taken a number of actions in the past year to spur positive cultural changes and improve engagement.

Martin said on Reddit that the Providence group “restructured our product design team to move to a more full-stack design model which is generally used in the tech industry.” 

The innovation group formed a senior leadership team that is half women, has created a diversity and inclusion plan that addresses hiring practices and fosters a “Women in DIG” group to provide mentorship and networking opportunities. Overall, Providence St. Joseph Health was ranked the eighth-best employer for women in the nation by Forbes last year.

Martin said in the GeekWire interview that he’s committed to continuing the cultural changes in the Providence digital unit. Instituting new leadership, he said, is only “the first step on a long, long road to build a great culture.”