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Surgery Partners CIO Varun Gadhok on AI, automation, and staff experience

Surgery Partners CIO Varun Gadhok offers insights into how they are leveraging AI to improve patient and employee experience.
By admin
Dec 20, 2023, 9:40 AM

In a recent interview, Varun Gadhok, Chief Information Officer of Surgery Partners, shares his insights on the company’s strategies in integrating advanced technologies like artificial intelligence. His expertise sheds light on how these innovations are shaping patient and employee experiences in the healthcare sector.  

How is Surgery Partners exploring emerging technologies like AI and machine learning?

Gadhok: Our core business involves coordinating surgeries in our operating rooms by efficiently managing block times, which allocate surgery schedules based on surgeon availability and preferences. We aim to optimize these block times for efficiency, adjusting for patterns in physician availability and using AI to determine the right supplies based on surgeon preferences. Maybe this surgeon likes to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays from this time to this time, things like that.  

Also, AI can help us answer ‘How do we get the right supplies based on that surgeon’s preferences?’ That’s where AI comes in, it’s also where business intelligence comes in.  

The way we pilot things is to put together a business plan and see if the return on investment is there. If it’s successful, we’ll scale it out across the enterprise. Many think of return on investment as just profit and loss, like cost savings or revenue opportunities. 

But I think it extends beyond that. It’s about better patient quality. If so, we want to measure that – are we improving patient quality of care? Are we able to reduce risk? In our efforts, we focus on quantifying outcomes in our pilot projects. Our goal is to be as data-driven and objective as possible in identifying what works and what doesn’t. We learn a lot from our failures – they highlight opportunities and guide us to refocus our efforts.  

A key aspect of AI for us is automation. We’ve implemented numerous bots, including dozens of call bots. These bots are designed to analyze and handle routine, predictable processes. 

Consider a monthly task that someone does from start to finish manually. It’s not rewarding for our colleagues to engage in repetitive work. It leads to burnout and high turnover, and it’s usually unfulfilling. For example, constantly pulling up and extracting data from a spreadsheet isn’t an enjoyable task. Our aim is to remove such mundane tasks from their plates, allowing them to engage in work that fosters career growth, learning, and challenges. 

By focusing on these areas, we aim to make Surgery Partners not only a great place for our current employees but also an attractive option for top talent. We ensure this by providing fulfilling tasks. AI and automation have been integral to our journey, helping us achieve these goals. 

How does Surgery Partners adapt its services and strategies to meet the diverse needs of various healthcare systems, particularly when comparing the differing requirements of rural and urban hospitals?

  Gadhok: The need for a flexible approach is amplified in our environment because each center operates as its own entity. In line with our mission statement, we form partnerships, often with physician groups. These partnerships might involve us having a majority interest and the physician group a minority interest, as an example. 

Our unique selling point is our flexibility. For instance, if we acquire a center with systems they prefer and which support their operations, like when there’s a nearby hospital using the same systems and physicians practice at both locations, we avoid unnecessary changes just for the sake of standardization. We offer a level of flexibility and autonomy in such scenarios. 

However, as a publicly traded company, we do enforce stringent financial and IT controls. This can be a new experience for entities we acquire that were previously private. Ensuring the integrity of our financial reporting is crucial. Cybersecurity is another critical area, especially in rural areas where it might be challenging to find the necessary talent. We leverage the scale of Surgery Partners to fill these gaps and bolster our technology platform, balancing risk minimization with value maximization. 

The challenge and opportunity for us lies in managing multiple systems across our sizable number of facilities. While we strive for standardization where it makes sense, we also respect the need for flexibility. Business intelligence acts as the connective tissue in this scenario. By aggregating data from various systems, we can compare facilities, identify efficiency opportunities, and normalize disparate data for better visibility. 

This approach helps us identify and address cost discrepancies, like when different facilities use similar implants but at significantly varying costs. By centralizing data, we can educate departments, purchasers, and physicians about these differences, often rooted in physician preferences, and work towards delivering the most value to the community. This centralized data strategy has been a key initiative for us, allowing us to draw insights and continue investing in this area. 

How do you choose and manage AI pilots, and how do you mitigate risks?

Gadhok: We aim to gather input in various forms from our colleagues, who number around 13,000. It’s important for us to learn from each of them, especially those who have experience with specific systems, technologies, or processes. We’re currently developing a more efficient mechanism to collect their insights, moving beyond traditional methods like surveys. This will help us learn a great deal internally.  

Additionally, we use events like the one we’re currently attending, where we partner with Gartner, to stay informed about industry trends. We also collaborate with our existing vendors to understand the direction of their technology. In healthcare, particularly on the provider side, it’s been my experience that it’s most beneficial to extract as much value as possible from existing relationships and partners. Good partners will usually understand industry trends and your needs, and they’ll adapt their solutions accordingly.  

If our partners can’t meet these needs, we’re forced to solve these issues independently, which I prefer to avoid. Creating new systems or processes adds complexity, whereas I favor elegance and simplicity. So, we regularly check in with our partners to see what’s next on their roadmap. We prefer partnering with them on new developments rather than hiring new skill sets and venturing into areas where we may lack core competencies. Our partners, who serve multiple customers, have access to more data than we do and likely have the size, scale, and talent to develop new solutions that we might not have or wish to build ourselves. 

What trends or feedback have you observed in the healthcare IT industry recently?

Gadhok: There’s a growing interest in AI. Everywhere you turn, that’s what you’re hearing and I think  it starts to become a little noisy. I think it’s important to be able to distill what’s practical and relevant within your environment, and not try to kind of be all things to all people.  

But [AI] is an area where we’ll continue to kind of observe and see what’s taking place. That’s where we go to our partners. In fact, most of them come to us and say, ‘This is what we’re dealing with an AI’ and we say, ‘Great, we will leverage that for our unique processes, we will use block time features like I talked about to solve our unique processes.  

Our approach is to be adaptable, embracing technologies that align with our mission and foster a culture of continuous improvement. 

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