DaVita’s technology strategy driven by the ‘power of purpose’

Kidney diseases are a leading cause of death in the US, claiming more than a quarter million lives each year. Roughly 37 million people in the US are inflicted with chronic kidney disease (CKD) although most are undiagnosed. Left untreated, CKD may advance and can lead to more serious medical issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and complete kidney failure, or End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD).

The solution for many at that extreme stage is dialysis or a kidney transplant — both of which have a significant impact on the quality of life. Every 24 hours, 360 people in the US begin dialysis treatment for kidney failure, according to the CDC.

One organization at the forefront of clinical care and innovation is DaVita, one of the largest providers of kidney care services, with more than 2,800 outpatient dialysis centers in the US and close to 400 outpatient dialysis centers in 11 countries worldwide. This year alone, the company has served nearly 200,000 patients in the US at its outpatient centers and is actively pushing the kidney care industry to adopt high-quality standards of care for all patients.

While treating ESRD patients through its large network of dialysis centers is the Fortune 200 company’s primary business, the company is also involved in efforts to reduce CKD cases and the need for dialysis treatment and transplants as well. Here, IT is playing a significant role.

“We’ve been working to enable world-class integrated care at scale and transform the delivery of care at each point of a patient’s journey,” says Alan Cullop, SVP & CIO at DaVita.  “Our digital transformation strategy is centered around establishing a consumer-oriented model that helps us customize chronic care management based on the ever-changing conditions of each patient.”

The foundation for DaVita’s digital transformation will be a new technical platform and clinical documentation system that “allows for deeper integration across our applications and improves our ability to capture data throughout the patient’s care,” Cullop says, noting that development has been a multi-year process and deployment is now underway and will be completed in 2023. “We’re providing our physician partners, clinical teams, and patients with digital capabilities that support our efforts to proactively improve the quality of care our patients receive.”  

DaVita also provides millions of dollars in funding to address ancillary issues related to kidney disease sufferers, such as food insecurity and even support to patients impacted by environmental catastrophes such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

In this CIO Executive Council Future Forward podcast, we talk with DaVita’s technology chief about the company’s plan to expand activities from CKD treatment to disease prevention. Cullop also talks about DaVita’s strategies for AI and data analytics, as well as the importance of passion and culture as drivers of technology innovation.

The following are edited excerpts from that discussion. Click on the podcast players below to listen to Parts 1 & 2 of the conversation.

Tim Scannell:  How much of a role do technologies like data analytics and AI play in DaVita’s overall technology and business strategy?

Alan Cullop: We have a very large and very focused effort on AI and data analytics. There’s so much power in data and the insights doctors get early in the care continuum and how we engage with patients even before they are in dialysis. We’re using predictive algorithms to identify signs of undiagnosed kidney disease. We’re also doing a lot with population health management, performing more comprehensive patient assessments, managing our high-risk patients, stabilizing transitions of care, optimizing outpatient care, and really trying to call out things that help us understand disease progression.

We’re looking at a variety of sources of data, putting it in data lakes, and then using that to drive predictive models that really help our doctors and our care teams to stratify our patient’s risk by taking actions at the right time.

A lot of innovation initiatives right now are small and more closely aligned with tangible results. While this may be a great short-term strategy, how might this impact the concept of innovation in general as we move forward?

Alan Cullop: Innovation usually starts with a problem or something we’re trying to solve. And with AI sometimes you stumble on it unexpectantly as a search for the unknown unknown. The trick is to not let the outcomes and particular things we’re trying to solve get in the way of innovative thinking or block our sense of what’s possible.  

Sometimes smaller focused innovation efforts do lead to much bigger ideas. But, ideation sessions, innovation sessions, and hackathons have led to some interesting insights we’ve built upon and can be applied across the board. We encourage our teams to really embrace it, but we’re going to make mistakes. One of the better ways to learn is if you make a mistake, and now you know more than you did before and you know how to perhaps not repeat it.

IT culture is important today, especially in retaining and recruiting talent. As companies shift to a new normal of hybrid working, do you think there’ll be a significant impact on traditional cultural structures?

Alan Cullop: I think there are three fundamental issues or points that help build and sustain a strong culture. First, I am very excited by the increased focus on diversity, inclusion, and belonging in our society. We’ve been very focused on these issues for quite some time and really interested in embracing different perspectives. We’ve made great progress, but it’s one of those things that I would say your work is never done. I’m proud to be a part of the conversation and proud of the engagement level of our teammates.

Second, I think flexibility is crucial. We need to understand how and where our teammates want to work, which roles are conducive with work being done remotely versus hybrid models and find ways to keep our engagement high. For us, that’s a balance. We’re exploring more flexible work arrangements and talking to teammates about how and where they want to work to meet their needs.

Finally, leadership needs to be visible and consistent in terms of demonstrating the importance of culture and engagement. It’s easy to talk about culture, but it’s certainly harder to carve out time to be present and to genuinely engage with teammates on culture. Everyone looks to leadership to be role models and set examples. So, it’s important that we take the time to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

In earlier conversations, you talked about thepower of purpose.’ Can you tell me just what this means to you and how it comes into play at DaVita?

Alan Cullop: I think it’s super important and something we take very seriously. We talk about the power of purpose all the time in healthcare and what it means to stay connected to our patients and their families, and what we can do to really improve their quality of life and in many cases save lives. We bake this into our IT strategy, our team meetings, and our engagement approaches. I love the innovation and enablement that we bring. It personally gives me a lot of energy and passion and a sense of purpose. We’re doing something and we’re giving back to others, which I think for a lot of us helps bring a true sense of purpose.

IT Leadership