CIO Spotlight: How Angela Yochem plans to bring an outsider's perspective to Novant Health

In November, Novant Health created an entirely new executive position devoted exclusively to digital health. To fill that leadership role, the North Carolina health system tapped an executive with deep technology roots and virtually no experience in healthcare.

Angela Yochem, who started as Novant's chief digital officer in January, has spent her career filling technology leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies including BDP International, AstraZeneca, Dell, Bank of America and, most recently, as the CIO of Rent-A-Center.

What she lacks in hospital and health system experience she makes up for in her ability to redefine an organization’s approach to technology. In her new role, she'll be responsible for developing a strategic vision to use digital tools to engage patients that come in contact with Novant Health’s 15 hospitals and more than 1,500 physicians.

Yochem is launching her healthcare career at a system with a well-established IT infrastructure. That gives her the freedom to identify the unexplored opportunities where digital health can further enhance patient engagement.

“It’s amazing for me to walk into an organization with a strong technology foundation,” she says. “What that allows me to do is discover the white space: what hasn’t been done because we were focused on the foundational capabilities that had to be addressed.”

In the lead-up to her official start date, Yochem spoke with FierceHealthcare about how her experience in other industries will shape her new position and how she plans to evaluate the impact of new technologies—including those backroom developer projects that haven't seen the light of day.

FierceHealthcare: How do you think your past work will translate to Novant?

Angela Yochem: When you think about how we as citizens, as consumers and as patients have changed the way we interact with our retailers or our hospitals and providers, the evolution we’re seeing and the empowerment it brings to us as individuals lends itself to multi-industry application.

A lot of it is about creating a digital culture and helping our team members find new ways to think about old problems. That may be leveraging emerging technologies or tools that may not be obvious to executives that don’t have a mechanism in place to search for new solutions.

Technology is having a renaissance much in the way finance did a long time ago. In the 1950s and '60s, most organizations were largely sales-driven and finance might be there to ensure compliance with FCC regulations.

Sometime in the '70s and '80s, companies recognized finance expertise can help them make more money. And then nothing was done in these large companies without consulting the chief financial officer.  

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Today we can’t imagine a case where senior executives wouldn’t know anything about finance—it’s part of everyone’s job. The same renaissance is happening in the technology space across all industries. It’s no longer reasonable to expect all the technology expertise to live in a single organizational structure.

I’ll be helping the organization adopt pervasive expertise in digital capabilities. I don’t want to imply people are going to be configuring routers throughout the organization, but there will be the freedom to leverage new and emerging tools in a way that is safe, secure and in a way that is most advantageous for patients.

FH: Why did Novant create this new position rather than passing the responsibilities on to the CIO or the chief technology officer?

Yochem: These positions are typically created not because there is a perceived deficiency in technology leadership, but rather because the technology leadership is focused on the foundational technology capability, which is a fairly complex undertaking, especially at an organization the size of Novant Health.

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Creating a position with a different title creates a new perspective culturally. Sometimes, to minimize disruption, it’s easier if you layer in a new role. It’s a signal to the organization that there’s a commitment to digital growth.

It’s a signal to patients, too: We care about engaging you the way you want to be engaged with new and emerging technology. Digital channels are part of the way many patient groups want to be engaged.

FH: How do you plan to comb through and evaluate the vast number of new digital healthcare solutions?

Yochem: I love how much is happening in the healthcare space. There is no better time to be in healthcare because of the innovation. There’s a lot of noise and everyone knows it’s a hot area and everybody wants to be in it. So, we’re parsing through not only the research divisions of large technology companies but also the entire startup landscape.

This is another case where I’d like to borrow from something I’ve done in the past. I’ve long believed the advantage of any commercial organization is enabled by its technology. If, as a technology leader, I’m just dutifully buying off the shelf whatever solutions are made available to me by the traditional vendor community, I have not necessarily differentiated my company through technology.

It's more advantageous to create a mechanism that allows for rapid adoption of technology that might not be commercially available.

The research team in a large technology organization may be working on something they don’t plan to take to market for 5 or 10 years, or perhaps ever. Working with those organizations and volunteering to be customer zero and doing some experiments with them, that becomes an interesting way of engaging with technology solutions that aren’t available to anyone else.

FH: How does that work? How do you plan to put those tools to the test?

Yochem: Experimentation as a service is something I’ve put in place at other companies. It allows leaders at various divisions to come in and say, “I’ve heard about some studies done around this or that.”

Then it's about putting in place a construct to run a quick experiment with small focus groups, so every time someone wonders what might be possible, they aren’t starting from scratch. There’s someplace for them to go.

Those are the things I’ve done before that could be very transferable.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.