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Innovation and Health care - An interview with Bud Flagstad

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

We put a series of questions to Bud Flagstad, our Senior Vice President of Software Innovation and Technical Product Services at UnitedHealth Group to explain what innovation means for his team, UnitedHealth Group and healthcare globally.

1. How does UnitedHealth Group support innovative thinking?

I think that it has been built into UnitedHealth Group’s DNA from back when it first started. It’s only been enhanced over the years as we’ve brought in new tools and new people to the plate to help us think more in an innovative way with a startup mentality. We use a lot of lead startup tools. We look at continuous improvement, delivery and really an agile methodology that allows us to bring things to the table really quickly and determine if they have merit or if we have rethink it.

2. How is innovation part of everyday culture at UnitedHealth Group?

I have the distinct pleasure of working in the OptumInsight organization, so every day I wake up it’s all about innovation. I’ve got a team somewhere around 100 people who focus on innovation and work across the organization, UnitedHealth Group, UnitedHealthcare and Optum to bring new things to life that can be envisioned within the business units or within our group itself. We’ve built out a number of tools using a platform called Ignite internally to help us manage innovation ideas across the enterprise. I have a team of people who work in that on a regular basis. Plus, we have a research team and have recently built out an advanced technology collaborative that’s looking at future tech in different spaces like machine learning, cyber security, big data, and blockchain.

3. What UnitedHealth Group innovation are you most proud of having contributed to here?

It’s really probably the thing that got our team started which was around telehealth in 2008. We built a semi-truck in 7 weeks and put it on Capitol Hill July 15th, 2009. The fact that we were able to build that truck, put a satellite dish on it, and show telehealth in a semi-truck trailer that was built to look like the clinic inside within a short period of time was one of the things we were most proud of. There’s certainly been a ton of things since, but that was really what triggered us as to become the innovation team. What came out of that was Unitedhealth Group President, Steve Hemsley was really happy with what we delivered and told us “I want more of this from your team” and that’s when we expanded and really turned up the heat around innovation. From that we’ve delivered a number of things along the way that are used actively every day now.

4. Why is innovation important in the global health care industry?

While the approach to healthcare and how it gets paid for and how it’s managed in different countries can be different, in the end the goal to create access, better outcomes, and high quality care is common throughout the world.  I think we’re on the precipice of coming up with some really intriguing things to help people develop their own individual records and that will be used globally. For an individual’s caregivers, providers and doctors that means the ability to give them the best care based on what we know about them. We’re working diligently on solutions for that.

5. What happens when a new idea fails?

The key is that we learn from it and we try not to create the same mistake more than once. Things can fail for a number of reasons, so even the telehealth stuff that we did in 2009 didn’t work because it was too early. The end-points for telehealth were expensive and you needed lots of bandwidth. The real transformation happened when smart phones came along. Now you have the ability to do telehealth via your cell phone. This wasn’t easily done back then and the world just wasn’t ready for it. Now it’s become almost a commodity. The good thing is that what failed in 2009 has been resurrected years later and the learning from that set the stage for what we were going to do moving forward. That’s the key: learning from your mistakes and not forgetting the good stuff from it.

6. In what ways can you innovate outside of technology fields?

If you take into account the billions of transactions and the millions of calls we take on a daily basis; think what we could do to give the consumer, the member, the patient better data and better information every time we touch base with them. Not only to reduce our costs, but give them a chance for a better outcome. So the administrative opportunities are probably as big - or bigger in some cases -when we interact with a provider or a member. We can take a look at those things and figure out how to streamline our business to give people better care.
One of the great programs we’re working on right now is Special Needs Special Benefits, which really came about when a member of our team who has a son named Hugh had a tremendous challenge just getting him a wheelchair and we were his insurer. So he started to document all the calls he needed to make. He asked if he could work on it as a project and I said “absolutely”.  He started working on it with our operational teams and now they’ve developed a really great path for people who have children with lifelong challenges. We are trying to make it easier for them to get through our system and make sure they aren’t spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the wrong stuff. Giving them that advocate to help them have a better experience and reduce the stress on a family, dealing with, say, down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Things that are going to be with them the rest of their life. That is a huge opportunity that has been spoken about by our executive team on big stages around the company. There’s nothing more fulfilling than that: to see Tom from my team be able to bring that forward over the last two years and really gain tremendous support and traction to help all those families.

7. How can fresh graduates be part of the innovative work we do here at UnitedHealth Group?

We get a lot of them in through the Technology Development Program and actually we’ve been fortunate to have some great candidates who joined our team and then long-term came back as employees. It brings some fresh perspective, so we’re always excited to take advantage of that program.

For more information about Innovation at UnitedHealth Group, please visit: http://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/innovation

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