How Ascension Is Creating Holistic Healthtech That Centers on Both Patients and Providers

Written by Ghazala Irshad
Published on Nov. 20, 2020
How Ascension Is Creating Holistic Healthtech That Centers on Both Patients and Providers

Some industries have digitized the customer experience so seamlessly, it’s almost a given. 

Healthcare, on the other hand, “still has some catching up to do,” said Eduardo Conrado, the executive VP and chief strategy and innovation officer at Ascension, one of the largest nonprofit Catholic healthcare systems in the United States. 

Though digital advances in the healthcare industry have made it possible for users to book a doctor visit, fill out paperwork and pay bills online, Conrado envisions Ascension’s healthtech products filling a gap where healthcare itself is lacking. Ascension’s goal is to create an end-to-end digital experience for both patients and providers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated Ascension’s digital strategy — which includes a holistic approach and human-centered design thinking. One effort was moving to virtual visits amid fears of coronavirus being spread in a clinical setting. 

This is one of the industries where everyone in the population is actually a customer.”

Conrado said the real challenge had been operating virtual visits at scale, but the pandemic spurred adoption. He estimated that Ascension went from 10 virtual visits per day before the pandemic to 17,000 visits per day.

“Healthcare is huge. We’re talking about trying to influence tens of thousands of front-line clinicians and even more patients,” Conrado said. “This is one of the industries where everyone in the population is actually a customer.” 


Eduardo Conrado
Eduardo Conrado, Ascension


Ascension’s mission is to serve all people, especially those who are most vulnerable. Conrado believes that by creating better experiences for patients interacting with healthcare systems, Ascension’s internal innovation team, the “Studio,” is advancing that mission and will ultimately create tools that drive better patient health outcomes.

“That’s the exciting thing about the healthtech industry — one aspect is consumer-centric, trying to improve the customer experience,” Conrado said. “But most importantly, you’re dealing with people’s lives and have a huge opportunity to improve their health outcomes. There’s so much innovation that can take place in that area.”

Built In sat down with Conrado to learn more about Ascension’s strategies for consumer engagement, care delivery and product innovation. Conrado shared his vision for the transformation of healthcare through the lenses of technology, operations and medicine, and explained why the experiences of both patients and providers must be prioritized to see a true revolution in healthtech.


Providing healthcare for all

As a Catholic organization, the ministry is committed to a mission of providing care to everyone, regardless of financial or insurance status, for the benefit of the larger community. This past summer, Ascension reported it provided $2.4 billion in uncompensated healthcare, health education programs and other services in its last fiscal year. “Ascension is at a good intersection for people looking to use the best of their minds for mission-oriented, fulfilling work that also involves technology challenges,” Conrado said. “We’re connecting the head and the heart.”


You’ve said that the experiences of patients and providers need to be addressed holistically and prioritized equally in order to transform healthtech. Why do you think that is? 

For both patients and providers, healthcare expectations are influenced by other industries in terms of what they experience end to end. On the patient side, there’s a foundational set of virtual experiences that have come to be expected like booking an appointment, filling out paperwork or bill payment. 

At Ascension, we’re thinking holistically, end to end, about how we can translate those experiences from other industries into healthcare. 

The patient and provider journey go hand in hand.” 

Let’s say you have a chronic disease to manage. You still need to see the doctor face to face, but in some cases, you might want a virtual interaction with the doctor and a digital follow-up and feedback afterward. That hasn’t traditionally been a part of the interaction in healthcare but it is something we’re working on. Beyond that, there’s also technology we’re developing for remote patient monitoring, which helps our caregiver team monitor vitals at home or make an assessment based on a set of questions answered virtually. 

All of those components are being driven on the patient side, and they all influence the provider side. Caregivers don’t just want information; they want insights. Our Studio team is working to answer questions like: How do we provide insights to the caregiver on mobile or tablet? How do we give them the flexibility to see more patients through virtual means? The patient and provider journey go hand in hand. 

The problem is that most healthcare technologies were built in silos. At Ascension, we’re weaving them together. The Studio team, along with our partners in marketing and communications, are made up of ethnographic researchers, designers and product managers. They look at the holistic journey of the patient and the caregiver — and at any friction points in that journey. Then, they try to design the optimal component, whether it’s digital or a change in physical workflow. 

We’re building from scratch. Instead of taking an existing product and retrofitting it to meet the need, we’re building it from the ground up with end users in mind.


Ascension is Hiring


Ascension employees in discussion


In what ways has Ascension strengthened its approach to data and analytics?

We took a brand new approach over the last year. We hired a chief data officer to build our data engineering team. They’re in charge of looking at all the data layers we have, from the lens of both the consumer and patient. 

At the same time, we also hired a chief data scientist to work with the data engineering team. The data science team focuses on clinical components, like clinical quality outcomes and insights. We also have an actuarial team using data to work on our insurance products, and another team working with finance and operations. 

Our chief data officer and chief data scientist are both based out of Chicago. When we opened the Ascension Studio in our Wacker Drive office, we wanted to bring everyone together within that space: data engineering and data science, along with researchers, designers, product managers and developers. Even though the data teams are building their own data stack, they work very closely with the digital team. 


leaders from diverse industries

While Ascension employs many healthcare experts, Conrado said the Studio team reflects a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. Head of Research Esha Bhargava has previous experience at Motorola Solutions, where she worked on public safety. Head of Design Aaron Ferber spent time at IDEO, where he applied design thinking to consumer industries. And Vice President of Product Jonathan Mesh spent more than five years at Google.


You lead Ascension’s digital innovation and strategy teams. How are you steering that strategy to unite clinical, technological and operational roles at the organization?

After our design and research teams work with our clinicians, their recommendations go to our product managers, who work on the mobile or web-based applications. Our Studio looks almost like a mini software company. We have ethnographic researchers, designers, product managers and a front-end development team to build out the apps.

In the healthcare provider space, IT teams are common, but product managers are rare. I find the way they look at the complete journey of a product is useful for the healthcare we want to provide.

We also trained about 400 non-tech employees on Agile development so they can collaborate with our tech and data teams to solve big problems together.

The great part about this conglomeration of people at Ascension is that they are all attracted by our mission-oriented work and the impact they can have at scale. But they also like figuring out how to apply knowledge from other industries to healthcare.


Ascension products


We heard the Studio teams apply human-centered design thinking. Tell us more about that. 

Design thinking and in-house development are something new in healthtech. Traditionally, external companies would work on projects sporadically. The great thing about our Studio is that our team can constantly iterate and build capabilities while getting to know the patient and provider journeys intimately. 

Our design and research teams meet with patients and providers, asking how we can make the experience better. For example, during the pandemic, we saw a need to redesign the emergency room because there was a real fear of contracting the coronavirus. 

After gathering feedback from patients and caregivers, we built an application for a virtual ER consultation and online registration for an in-person visit. And when doctors told us they wanted to track patients after sending them home, we built a COVID-specific application for remote patient monitoring.


Ascension is Hiring


What do you think is possible with new technology and healthcare?

Part of it is very consumer-centric. But the other part of it is dealing with people’s lives and trying to improve patient health outcomes. Working hand in hand with the clinical team, I think there’s a lot of innovation that can take place to achieve better health for people. That’s what makes healthtech exciting as a discipline.

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