Angela Yochem, EVP Chief Transformation and Digital Officer at Novant Health, on the many detours she took in college, the meaning of community for female leaders, and why we need to tell young women that “doing the hard stuff is super fun and interesting”

 

What initially sparked your interest in technology?

It began when my father taught me to write code when I was around 11 years old. Unlike today, an 11-year-old coder was relatively anomalous back then. Even though I didn’t know anything about systems building and how machines worked, I saw coding as a way to solve logic problems and I’d write little games to pass the time. After which, I had several detours along my technical journey. I completed a bachelor’s degree in music and ultimately made my way back to computer science for graduate school.

Did you always want a career in technology?

I started my career in technology in my mid-20s, and I’ve loved the field. But over time, I’ve found that the biggest problems in most industries require a significant business transformation, largely enabled by advanced technologies, and that’s where I’ve specialized lately. I thrive in addressing changing business models, consumer demands, market expectations or the entry of unconventional competitors.

Yes, there’s almost always a technical aspect but it’s not a technology problem. I think computer science is to business evolution as AI is to medicine. AI is not medicine but if you are solving some of the biggest problems in medicine, then it’s important to have an understanding of what AI-based algorithms could potentially do for the problem that you are trying to solve.

What are some of your responsibilities as the Chief Transformation and Digital Officer at Novant Health?

My responsibilities are all things related to technology within our healthcare system including providing digital health services to the communities we serve. I have a team of fantastic senior staff that includes our Chief Data Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Medical Informatics Officer and Chief Health Informatics Officer and other technical C-suite leaders. I oversee the business transformation office which identifies new revenue streams and adjacent services and products that we can offer to our patients. I also co-chair our Institute of Innovation and Artificial Intelligence with our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Eric Eskioglu. It’s a fabulous exploration and set of work that we are doing collectively as a team in the healthcare space.

How challenging it is to be a female leader in a large healthcare system like Novant Health?

I recognize that I have the responsibility to ensure other females taking their career forward feel comfortable. I know that because I am a very visible female leader, I am acting as an example for others. So, I take this responsibility very seriously. I have not had any issues at Novant Health. Our healthcare system ranks number one nationally in inclusion and diversity. We are recognized for having a unique culture for women and diverse managers.

I always tell people that Novant Health did not hire me for my medical expertise. We already have plenty of talents in the medical field today, so I was hired for my ability to apply advanced technologies to complex problems. Some of the most difficult problems that we face in medicine today are supported by leveraging advanced technologies and that’s exactly where I can contribute, bringing in the knowledge that I wouldn’t say is unique but challenging to find. So, it has been a privilege to work alongside other professionals in the field to create something meaningful for all of us.

How should we encourage women to pick up digital skills and nurture themselves into leaders?

Girls tend to move from middle school to high school with a keen interest in technology and excited by careers in STEM, but then lose interest as they enter college. One of the reasons is that they feel a lack of community in the typical computer science program – so the best programs have clubs for female engineers or scientists, where they can find a community in which they feel accepted.

I know that when I was 17 and entering college, I would not have done well in the computer science programs at the time – even though I had an extraordinary amount of college math and light-weight programming under my belt. Historically, there have been cultural norms to those hard-core computer science programs that are very insular and reject students who approach problems differently. That’s changing. I’m involved with two amazing computer science programs today, and both have made intentional efforts to champion differences in their students. There is a recognition now that diversity of thought and experiences leads to more creative problem solving in teams and that holds true whether those teams are undergraduate students or seasoned professionals. So I think this problem will be resolved with the ongoing maturation of these computer science programs across the US. But in the meantime, I think there are several things we can do.

First, go speak to the young women in high schools or colleges and try to get them to go into computer science. We need to stop pulling our punches. How many times have you heard someone stand up and say, guess what, there are a lot of non-technical jobs in technology that you can do. You can be a project manager. You can be a business analyst; it doesn’t have to be hard coding. My goodness, what kind of message are you putting across when you tell them not to do the hard stuff?

We should tell these young women that doing the hard stuff is super fun and interesting. If you are a smart person or a problem solver, with a good mind for logic, and want to make a difference in the world, STEM could be an amazing window into the way the entire world works and progresses. It’s impossible to separate any societal progress from technology. Yes, you can still be a project manager but why would you not get your hands on a keyboard and apply your intelligence to solve some of these very difficult problems affecting our society. That’s number one.

Next, we need to create systemic constructs that allow these young women to form a community beyond their entry-level computer science classroom. The great news is, with the extreme connectivity that we now have across social media platforms and other less commercialized platforms and mechanisms, we can easily create support networks and connect to women who have enjoyed success in the field. I think that young female computer scientists and engineers will feel less isolated when they are part of a greater community.

These two things would make a big difference. That’s why I think it’s a big deal what AIMed is doing. I wouldn’t want to leave this interview without acknowledging it. Thank you for the work done in bringing and building this community in a way that will make everyone in it stronger and ultimately benefit the patients we treat and the communities in which we live. I believe this should be the way we learn and progress.

You’re welcome! What are some of the things we can learn from Novant Health in terms of encouraging inclusion and diversity?

Novant Health has had a strong focus on inclusion, diversity and equity for many years. Here, I need to mention my colleague, our Executive Vice-President and Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer, Tanya Blackmon. She sits in the executive team with our CEO and all senior staff, so we can apply diversity and inclusion to every major decision that we make regardless of the nature of the decision. Tanya and her team’s excellent work also extend to the communities we serve, making diversity and inclusion, a pervasive way of life for us.

It is important that we incorporate a diversity of thoughts, experiences and cultures as we tackle difficult problems. This allows us to look at the problems across various perspectives to get to the best possible solutions. What makes Novant Health unique is that we don’t just implement a diversity and inclusion program, but we also focus on equity in how we engage our teams, our patients and our communities.

Health equity is a significant societal challenge, and Novant health has been focused on ensuring equity in healthcare for our patients for many years. This same focus extends to our team members. We are intentional about how we engage our teams, how we define our management routines and how we define what it means to work equitably.

What excites you most about the future of medical AI?

The options around extreme personalization are exciting for me. We think about AI being used to predict major health events or diagnose diseases today, but wouldn’t it be interesting to predict the behavior of diseases in certain human bodies and the relative effectiveness of a medicine or treatment? I am excited to witness faster diagnosis, more targeted treatment, predictive and prescriptive preventions, and of course, operational efficiencies.

Another exciting thing about medical AI is how research is being accelerated in a way we have never seen before with AI. Researchers were able to simulate a single celled organism several years ago and as that work continues over the next few years, particularly as we layer in the possibilities that are introduced by the advent of available quantum computing, I think healthcare research is going to be radically different. It’s reasonable to expect that wet labs will go away at some point in the future.

What concerns you most about medical AI?

Even before AI-based models and algorithms were in wide use, society experienced the results of buggy software and bad algorithms in legacy technologies. For decades, errors and bugs have somehow made it to production and these typically either make the news or just annoy the users of the software. If these types of errors are supercharged with the extraordinarily advanced computing we have today, they have the potential to provide the wrong answers to very important questions, and of course that’s concerning.

So, the first thing that AI community must do is pressure-test its models and algorithms, building in gates throughout the process to allow for validation steps beyond the normal. On the flip side, we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. As with anything, we need to weigh the overall benefit against the overall risks, and there’s nothing we do in medicine that is completely without risk. So, we must continue this work for the sake of our patients and the practice of medicine, but as always, we need to be careful and intentional about how we apply advanced tech, including medical AI, to some of the most difficult problems we are facing in our field.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

We all know that being a lifelong learner is important, but many of us reach a point where we no longer go to training courses to learn and grow. So then, how do we progress? We learn from other members of our communities. We learn from people in other significant roles in the same industry or from other industries.

Building a strong community from which we can learn means that we need to find ways to contribute early and often, even if our contributions are relatively minor. For example, when I was an entry-level technologist, I joined a local user group and found ways to help with the small things that had to be done to keep the group up and running. I found ways to assist and that helped me assimilate, and eventually, I became a valuable member of that community.

Over the years, my definition of community has moved from small industry groups to the very large communities in which I live. I do my best to remain a contributor and acknowledge the privilege of being able to learn from other people who are significant contributors to our communities. That’s how I have stayed on my toes. Finding ways to contribute relentlessly and make the communities around us stronger is so important, not just because our societal obligations, but also in support of our own personal growth.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in AI?

The study of AI has been ongoing for some time, even before I was born. But AI was more theoretical in the past, due to the unavailability of the computing power that we have today. AI is gaining traction as we build solutions for difficult problems now because of the proliferation and unprecedented availability of data, paired with the advances in computing power we are enjoying.

In other words, we have more data to build models and more computing power to crunch that data than we ever had before. So my advice to people entering the field of medical AI is: don’t get wrapped around the notion of making “AI” distinct from other advanced computing capabilities, because it’s all going to be very blurry as time moves on.

Every solution set of any significance will have an AI component, and most devices being designed now have AI components to solve problems at the device (or edge) level. In our world, we will get faster diagnosis and highly personalized treatment for our patients. We will also see more predictive and prescriptive preventions. We can identify the likelihood of major health events before they happen and prescribe the best possible course of action to avoid other major health events.

AI will impact every corner of medicine, making “medical AI” a redundant term. AI will be part of medicine, part of every other industry, and part of every device we wear, every automated process we consume, every experience we have as consumers or as professionals. The distinctions we see today with AI solutions will no longer exist in the future.

If you could edit your past, what’s the one thing you’d change?

I started college as a music major with a mathematics double major before moving into becoming an economics double major. This was followed by a general business double major and then, I decided to go back to being a double mathematics major but too much time had passed, and I had lost so much ground in my higher mathematics, so it was just a mess! I ended up graduating with just a music major, but I learned a lot about other things along the way.

Sometimes, I ask myself, what if I had not taken as many detours in college and just gone straight up doing mathematics or computer science? But then I wouldn’t have had the extraordinary experiences that I had as a music major, being able to perform in an environment that most don’t ever get to experience. I would have missed that even though I might have started my ultimate career a couple of years earlier.

When I was young, I used to think how great it would have been if I could go back to the past and fix my mistakes. However, as I’ve become older, I look back and realize I am glad that I took the path I did because it made me into who I am. How many of us wish we were someone different? By and large, we value who we are and the paths we took to make us ourselves.