Health information technology (health IT) improves health care efficiency, quality and safety. Many of these tools, however, are more cumbersome than helpful. Voalte is a game-changer in this respect—improving coordination and patient safety through one effective tool. DW sat down with Kenda West, Chief Operating Officer at Voalte, to talk about her career, how Voalte is positively disrupting the industry, and the advice she would like to offer to future Disruptive Women.
Tell us about your background and how you became interested in health information technology.
When I started my career, the field of health IT bore little resemblance to the industry it is today. I had the privilege of growing professionally as the industry developed. I was first introduced to health information technology during my senior year of college, when a large, forward-thinking community hospital in Maryland hired me as a programmer analyst. It was an incredible learning opportunity, and I stayed there for over 10 years.
As a member of a very early health IT department, I got first-hand experience implementing virtually every type of system. More importantly, I learned the workflow, the revenue cycle and the business of the hospital. It was a perfect training ground, and it was where I grew to love the mission of a hospital, the sense of community, and the reward of supporting the clinicians who take care of us.
Are you surprised that it took this long for health information technology to take off?
No. The complexity of our health care industry is almost unparalleled, so it’s difficult to make it automated, seamless and completely paperless. Health IT has been slowly ramping up over the last 30 years, but the pace has accelerated in the last five years, partly because of government incentives. It’s great that we’re making progress, but breakneck speed is not a good thing either. In health care, more than any other industry, hastily or poorly conceived and implemented systems can frustrate caregivers, add expense and even harm patients. We need to respect the delicate balance of cost, time, safety and technological improvements.
What has been one of the toughest challenges in implementing technology in hospitals?
Technology is expensive and disruptive, and hospitals must be conservative when it comes to adoption. They have the responsibility of caring for patients and doing their best to ensure patient safety. Technology developers often don’t fully understand the workflow and the many ways clinicians deliver care. Until technology became so prevalent in our day-to-day lives, many clinicians were not comfortable with it. Now that technology is much more prevalent in daily life, integrating it into the clinicians’ practice or workflow is not as foreign. Many systems and technologies are still not as user-friendly or fluid as caregivers would like, but they are improving all the time. We are starting to realize the benefits of automating medical records and accelerating the retrieval of critical information at the point of care. There is still a lot of work to do.
How is Voalte disrupting things in today’s hospitals?
I was drawn to Voalte because of my experience introducing new technologies into a hospital setting. I admit I have been guilty of installing technology that providers did not want to use, did not work for them, or they did not like. But Voalte delivers a product that meets a real need. Clinicians want to use it to improve a critical part of the care process: communication.
How is Voalte different from other care coordination tools?
One of the biggest communication issues in the hospital setting is the “tool belt.” The “tool belt” existed because there was no one device that clinicians could use to reliably communicate and receive alarms. Due to the challenging physical and technical environment of hospitals, it was not uncommon to see a clinician carrying multiple communication devices. In addition to the burden on the provider, this also meant the hospital required different technology platforms to efficiently communicate with its staff on each device. With Voalte in place, caregivers have the ability to make voice calls, receive alarms and alerts, and send and receive text messages. In the near future, the smartphone will also be able to serve as a barcode scanner for medication administration. This fully integrated platform is a huge leap from the “tool belt,” and I believe it will change the entire landscape of health care communication.
What is your vision for where and how Voalte will drive change in the near future?
We are looking to transform the health care experience by bridging the gap between the caregiver and patient, and we are just scratching the tip of the iceberg with an application like Voalte One. Voalte makes communication within the health care ecosystem transportable, secure and affordable. Because computing power is constantly increasing, smartphone applications and the functions we can perform on this single device are almost limitless. Many existing technologies are becoming obsolete, while the ways to improve information-sharing are increasing.
What is some advice you can give to an “up-and-coming” Disruptive Woman interested in breaking into the field of health information technology?
The ability to apply logic and common sense to the process of problem-solving and project management is an underrated skill set. I have no clinical training or engineering expertise, but I do have a business degree. I’ve made a respectable living and career by learning about the business of the health care industry. I’ve learned to address complex problems and challenges with simple tactics, and translate issues from caregivers to technologists and vice versa.
If you want a career in health IT, learn about the business and the workflows. Learn what nurses do, how they work and what their challenges are. Watch the OR Tech who stocks and prepares the OR carts with supplies. Become well-versed in charging and billing. Follow a physician and try to understand what it’s like to walk in her shoes on any given day. Learn about operations, the regulatory environment and the strategies of your organization.
You can’t successfully apply technology to a field you know nothing about. So learn the business. Use common sense. Become a good communicator. Always be mindful and respectful of the work and responsibilities of the caregivers. We take care of them so they can take care of patients. Finally, put in the work. Meet your deadlines. Take on difficult assignments. Admit mistakes and clean them up. It’s simple stuff, but it’s important.
Kenda West is the Chief Operating Officer of Voalte. Prior to this position, West was Chief Information Officer for the Community Division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, where she had strategic and operating IT responsibility. West also held IT leadership positions at MedStar Health in Washington, D.C., and Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Maryland. Prior to those positions, she was Director of Corporate Strategic Planning and Business Development at McKesson.