By Jason Hartman | February 18, 2021
“For me, it is automating as much as possible the processes needed to deliver care to a patient or a member. If you look at the whole health system value chain from the time a patient shows up to see their physician to when they’re treated or discharged, anything in the value chain that is a manual process which is not adding to the quality of care should be digitized, including the payment process to pay for the treatments.”
Aspart of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Talton, President & Chief Executive Officer, Gray Matter Analytics.
Sheila Talton is an innovative global leader and Big Data strategist with over 35 years of experience in helping organizations increase value, build successful businesses within Fortune 500 companies and as an entrepreneur. In 2013, she founded Gray Matter Analytics, a leader in healthcare Analytics as a Service (AaaS), to help healthcare organizations apply data analytics to reduce costs, grow revenue and improve health outcomes. Previously, Ms. Talton held leadership roles at Cisco Systems Ernst & Young and EDS, and currently serves on the board of multinational corporations including John Deere, Sysco Foods and OGE.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Yes, I have been in technology for close to 35 years, I started out on the hardware side of the business, then moved to software. And then from software I moved to services. I was managing partner for the Midwest for Ernst and Young’s critical technologies practice. I also ran services globally for Electronic Data Systems, as well as for Cisco Systems. I had spent my last three years at Cisco basically out of the U.S. between working in China and then down in South America. When I got back to California about seven years ago, I decided I wanted to dive back into the data space. Early in my career, one of the software companies I was with built the early iterations of relational databases, so I decided to launch that business in Chicago. That’s how I got to where I am today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When we first started, even before launching the business, I did some research and looked at what industries were most reliant on data, and two industries popped up. One was financial services and the other was healthcare. I actually thought we could tackle both of those verticals. So, we launched Gray Matter with a focus on both. After getting my hands dirty in healthcare, I realized there is so much work to be done in that industry alone. And there is no way, in my opinion, that a startup could take on a vertical in addition to healthcare, especially around the data space.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped you get where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had so many helpers it’s quite difficult to name one. But I’ll talk about when I first started Gray Matter. Rita Dragonette was a former CEO and owner of a successful PR firm. We’ve been friends for a very, very long time, as well as business colleagues. I hired her PR firm when I was running another startup previously, and they did a great job for us. Then when I first started this business, I needed to raise some capital. She was one of the first ones who said, “Count me in. I’m writing a check.” And it’s not just the check. She has always been a trusted partner and advisor throughout my career, and she continues to be that constant advisor for me as Gray Matter grows and evolves.
Is there a particular book or podcast or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I don’t read fiction, so this is a hard one. I only read autobiographies or business books. I guess the one I might reflect on is Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips. Donald Phillips researched his actions, read his letters and notes, and studied his life to come up with some fundamental principles as to why Abraham Lincoln was such a great leader. In summary they revolved around people, character, endeavor, and communication. One of the key beliefs Lincoln had that I share is “Lead by being led.” I believe that leadership is about moving obstacles for your team and clearing the way for individuals to do their job and be successful. Empower, delegate, support, coach, elevate, nurture, guide, and be open with everyone. In other words, model the way you want your team to be.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The vision was to put data analytics into the hands of healthcare administrators, clinicians and health plans to help them improve the quality of care, and to help manage costs. This is an even greater challenge for smaller community-based health systems and/or Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) because of the lack of talent and financial resources. Our solutions empower health systems and MCOs to have “data analytics in a box” that will accelerate the maturity of their analytics capability within the enterprise. This capability puts community health systems and MCOs on par with most of our customers who are larger health systems and Blue Plans. That was the vision, and that still is the vision today.
Are you working now on any new, exciting projects? How do you think that might help people?
I’m not working on any new projects, but I think all of our projects are exciting. We have a couple of prospective new customers that I would classify as safety-net health systems, which provide care to low-income and vulnerable populations that will be a test bed for the vision I mentioned earlier. This is particularly timely, given what’s happened in the United States with the pandemic and how it has impacted the lives of black and brown people. I’m really excited about being able to deliver these types of analytic tools to providers and health plans that need to accelerate their analytics capabilities.
Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain exactly what Digital Transformation means on a practical level? What does it look like to engage in Digital Transformation?
For me, it is automating as much as possible the processes needed to deliver care to a patient or a member. If you look at the whole health system value chain from the time a patient shows up to see their physician to when they’re treated or discharged, anything in the value chain that is a manual process which is not adding to the quality of care should be digitized, including the payment process to pay for the treatments. A lot of those administrative activities present in a health system as well as in a health plan are not a component of the treatments to a patient. Health plans in particular have a lot of opportunities to automate because they process payments. Health plans have been building outreach programs and care managers need technology tools to help identify patients at risk, coordinate care with providers, and track the progression of care.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
If you look at Digital Transformation and the use of technology, healthcare has been at the bottom of the adoption curve. We still have a lot of work to do in healthcare as an industry. I believe the unfortunate advent of COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the lack of adoption of technology in healthcare. I also believe post-COVID, healthcare will be accelerating digital transformation in all areas of the value chain to deliver better care to patients and members.
We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes, and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.
When I think of companies that really have applied Digital Transformation to their businesses, one that always comes to mind is John Deere, where I’m on the board. If you look at how Deere has applied technology not only to how it manufactures equipment, but also to deliver to its customers―the farmers―you can make the argument that Deere is a technology company that happens to manufacture tractors and combines. I take that lesson back to the opportunities in healthcare.
One other example that comes to mind is a regional Blue Plan that is a current client. They are using analytics to manage behavioral health readmissions; the client would only use pre-sent check lists to identify members at risk for readmissions for prioritization and referral to care management teams. This manual process was not accurately identifying all members who need interventions to reduce unplanned behavioral health readmissions. They were searching for a more automated and insightful solution to determine a risk score based on clinical and social determinants of health factors to identify and prioritize members for care management and referrals to virtual care programs. Gray Matter Analytics provided the regional health plan with an analytics solution that enabled timely interventions to reduce unnecessary utilization, reduce cost of care, and improve health outcomes.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
It has been a challenge for a lot of health systems, and health plans as well, to adopt digital transformation because of the historically large amount of manual processes needed to deliver care. Most health systems understand their mission is to either keep a patient out of the hospital or, if that’s not possible, discharge them as quickly as possible in a healthier state than when they arrived. A lot of that is science, and some of it is an art. When you’re dealing with the clinical pieces of digitizing a process, you have to start with changing behaviors and instilling trust in technology and data. There has to be a process by which the people who are collecting the data and the people who are using the data can agree on a single source of truth. That’s a behavioral change. So much of digitizing healthcare is about change management―not technology―and then figuring out how to align all the stakeholders on measuring the change progress.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ll share a story about a client that I won’t name. In their transformation of data, they were ahead of their time for a health system. And they got the clinical side of their organization using and believing in the data, as well as the administrative side. They did that by starting small and having small wins, then rolling the small wins into bigger wins and making evangelists out of some of the clinicians who had come to rely on the data for deciding how to treat certain clinical conditions. So, it’s about taking those small wins and creating teams that are cross functional and then growing them.
But when you hit a wall, the small wins can be taken for granted and they become table stakes. Then you start to look at doing things that take a significant amount of additional effort. And in all sincerity, health systems today are overtaxed from a bandwidth perspective, so finding time for clinicians to adapt to major changes is tough right now. But one way they can accomplish this is through partnerships with companies like Gray Matter and others that have specialties in those areas where they’re looking to make significant change around digital transformation. Even if a health system had unlimited financial resources, time is not on their side. Building some of these types of solutions internally can take years, and we need to transform healthcare yesterday. Partnerships are extremely important for enabling health systems and health plans to make major leaps in the area of digital transformation.
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
By rewarding individuals when they make mistakes. We have a lot of innovation in healthcare on the clinical side, but we tend to be risk-averse on the administrative side, even though there are fewer opportunities to make fatal mistakes. Now, I can understand being risk-averse when you’re performing heart surgery on me (thank you very much!) but being risk-averse when you’re looking at digitizing administrative processes doesn’t make sense. You have to have a culture that rewards individuals for trying something new versus rewarding them only if it’s a success.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I worked for a gentleman named Mike Green at Ernst & Young, who said something to me that I still repeat. He said, “Sheila, seek to understand before being understood.” That quote is relevant to me because in my career, I’ve always led teams that had client-facing responsibilities. And clients really appreciate it when you listen. When clients talk to me about whatever challenges they’re facing, one technique I use is to repeat back to them what I felt I heard. Customers want to be heard. They don’t need you to tell them how great your product or solution is; they want to know how it applies to the business problem and challenge they’re trying to solve. That approach has served me well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!