Norm Volsky Interviews Adam Kaufman, President & CEO at Canary Health

December 15, 2017

Norm Volsky, Director of Mobile HIT interviews Adam Kaufman, President and CEO of Canary Health. Mr. Kaufman shared the mission of Canary Health, interesting trend news, and a multitude of insights from his HIT career. 

Please tell us about yourself and the mission of Canary Health.

I’m an Engineer and a Health Economist who came to Digital Health out of a passion for solutions and technology-enabled services that rethink approaches and improve people’s lives; and I have a real commitment to making sure that those solutions and services work. Canary Health is the perfect place to blend my first career as an engineer with my work in economics. We’re dedicated to the mission of empowering individuals to better self-manage and to understand how their health impacts their lives. It seems like an obvious thing, but for a lot of us we don’t stop to realize that our emotions, daily habits, and relationships are impacted by having one or more chronic conditions.  It’s a really exciting mission to be empowering people to have the health they need for the life they want.

What is Canary Health’s key differentiator in the industry?

Our key differentiator is our focus on helping people determine what matters to them and working towards what’s important to them. I think a lot of the industry has an important, but over-reliant belief that better data and analytics are going to solve the problem. We are certainly big believers in helping people see the trends in their data and leveraging analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve our service, but there is something missing in those processes that helps someone understand what matters to them. We are differentiated by this unique approach that comes from intellectual property developed at Stanford University around how you engage someone in their own health and support their self-management. That is our foundational approach to helping them understand how to better care for themselves and drive towards improved condition management.

What inspired you to pursue a career in healthcare?

Two reasons why healthcare is the most exciting place to think about how technology can improve people’s lives: One is that it’s a great mission to know that every day we are working on impacting people’s lives in one of the most basic ways; their health and their ability to do the things they want.  Second is that the healthcare industry has lagged far behind in terms of the adoption of technology and the way that technology has disrupted the traditional service patterns. It’s an exciting place to be able to work on both a great mission and to make impact given how much opportunity there is to rethink care delivery and patient engagement.

What trends do you expect to see in the HIT industry in the next 5 years?

The most talked about trend, and I certainly agree, is Healthcare’s connection to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the ability to now leverage data to speed the processes, feedback loops and intelligence. I think that’s really interesting. What I think is less talked about, although maybe even more impactful, is how we are finally past the early adopter stage of health technology permeating the rest of our lives. I’m particularly interested in the extensions of health into other areas of our lives – like some of the innovative work with Alexa, and the rapid adoption of monitoring devices.  In the normal course of how individuals buy and shop for things, or interact with technology, health is often front and center. There have been some false starts in some of the bigger consumer technology companies into healthcare but I don’t think they’re giving up. Apple is taking another stab at it and Google is very involved, so I think that hopefully in the next 3-5 years we will start to see health as an element of our life that fits into the way we think about all the other things we’re doing.

How is your company getting into AI and Machine Learning?

We think that regardless of how great the technology is, healthcare is still a human delivered service, so a large part of our service is the technology, the experience on the app, and the experience with the devices we ship, but an important part of it is also the interaction with our coaches. We have a network of almost 90 coaches who interact with participants of our services. One of the first places we are applying AI and intelligent feedback loops is into what this coaching element. We look to help them learn about the personalities and the demographics of participants, not just whether they’re male or female, but how it all rolls up into a personality type, and how we can then help them be smarter about the way they respond to questions. Clearly there’s a lot of gain in getting the right answers, but we make the connection of who the user is as we know about them through the technology and through their consumer profile with our coaches’ engagement. We think it’s a really exciting application that can make our coaching more effective and more efficient while driving towards a more tailored and custom experience.

What interesting new projects are you working on?

A big project for us, and for us it’s the whole reason we’re here, is to further embed self-management support into condition management approaches.  We see that as focusing on what matters to an individual and empowering him or her to set goals to own that process. What I mean by condition management is the more clinical element of medications, physiological measures and clinical care related to a consumer’s disease. We want to connect that experience, which is primarily a disease management experience, with the self-management experience. That’s our big push and our reason for being; to humanize those programs that historically have been too clinical and not focused enough on what matters to the individual.

Have you had a mentor or mentors throughout your career?

I have had a number of mentors. I think some mentors are people who are in your life forever and some play particular roles.  My first boss at my first job out of college was just an incredible mentor professionally, but also showed at that stage how you could run a business, be friendly with the people you work with and care about them, but at the same time lead your own life, have a family and be committed to them, and be committed to other elements. He was such an important mentor because he was a good example of how to make a successful professional career fit with a successful life. My advisor in grad school was incredibly important for helping me think about some of the more intellectual challenges, and the Chairman of the Board at my previous company is someone that I deeply respect and continue to look to for guidance.  And in addition to bosses, a number of colleagues have been incredibly mentors. I have also had an executive coach off and on for a decade and that has been incredibly valuable as well.  I think sometimes we can use the word mentor too hierarchically and would encourage a broader perspective.

What strategies do you use at Canary Health to attract and retain top talent?

The easy answer is we do what everyone else would say; we make sure compensation is competitive and work towards ensuring delight in our team’s roles. I think that’s table stakes. For us we focus on a culture and approach of real transparency; we are incredibly honest with people as we’re hiring them.  We’ll openly discuss topics around our corporate trajectory and growth for example.

This, for example, has been very valuable in Digital Health to level set expectations that might be brought from consumer technology companies around the pace of growth.  I have stressed with candidates that if they’re here for a quick win in terms of equity liquidation, we’re not the right place. We’ve lost some candidates to folks who are seeking more of the Silicon Valley cycle, but it has allowed us to attract great people who are aligned with our mission and aligned with our approach to focusing on impact and growth at the same time.

Participant Engagement in your program are at high levels and a 90% satisfaction rate. What do you attribute this success to?

We take design very seriously and we take the user journey very seriously. We put participants at the center to decide what they want to commit to and what matters to them. Our design philosophy is about them first. We never make a recommendation; we give tips or examples but really everything participants are doing is something they’ve committed to. It’s all about them inside of a framework of support, tools, coaching, and nudging that we know they need to be successful but they’re the ones setting the way it works. On top of that, our cultural honesty permeates the way we act with our participants. Our service is not a single transaction, so it’s about engaging folks long term. We’re honest with them about how fast we think things will happen, and honest with them about what they need to put in to get there. The participants know what to expect and that helps keep them engaged.

What do you believe are the traits and qualities of a great leader?

I think I would start by saying I don’t know if I know. I think leadership evolves. What people need evolves and different qualities are needed at different stages of a company so I don’t think there’s a single answer. It depends on the situation and depends on what was promised to the people you’re leading. It comes back to authenticity; it’s different in each setting. Leadership in a video game company would be different than if you’re a coach of a sports team, and different than in our business. Our team, extended team and participants know we believe what we are saying, and we’re clear about it. That’s really critical.

Your LinkedIn profile mentions that you are active in a number of organizations with a primary focus on defining and measuring the health and economic impact of technology. What steps are you taking to achieve this within your organization?

That passion and commitment comes from my graduate work. My PHD is in Health Economics and Health Program Evaluation. To me, it’s a commitment to rigor around evidence. We’re about building long-term sustainable impact, while also building a big company. This takes time.  We could fool ourselves in the short run, but eventually it’s going to catch up to us and there’s no long-term value in that. To say we’re data driven is easy, but what is harder is building the culture data and insights that matter.   Some of the ways we do this are simple – like closing not only our financials, but participant engagement milestones regularly and with rigor and holding a weekly meeting that is attended by the whole senior team and all team leaders to review, look for correlations and drive upcoming behavior. We also work with our clients to match the outcomes we have in our programs with what they’re collecting, which allows us to connect the participant experience to utilization and expense. The third thing we do is build rigorous clinical trials, often with our academic partner. For example, our colleagues at Stanford and Anthem have run a major trial in which they’re looking at clinical outcomes and utilization, and they’re doing it in a very rigorous way because they are committed to publishing the information out to the public.

What advice would you give professionals looking to break into the HIT industry?

The biggest piece of advice I would give is that it is very multidisciplinary. HIT is often, although not exclusively, not deep foundational technology, but it’s technology that needs to be utilized and integrated with clinical care. For a technologist, having some sense of the business case and use cases is helpful and for the business side to know how technology is utilized and where it goes. Just within our company we’ve got clinicians, designers, product people, and economists. Because HIT is still an emerging field, there’s no core curriculum just yet – I think we’re getting closer, so you cannot just train yourself for just that. Being open to the reality that we are still figuring out how these different disciplines fit together is going to be critical for anyone who wants to get into HIT.

Norm Volsky
Director of Mobile HIT
440-996-0059
nvolsky@directrecruiters.com