The COVID pandemic has been a key catalyst and accelerator for digital transformation across industries, but it’s possible that no industry has felt the “winds of change” more than the healthcare sector. This sector – and, more specifically, the digital health sphere – has seen developments in everything from new telehealth visits and AI diagnoses to adjustments in the way hospitals, medical centers, and doctors use data to optimize care.

Despite all these developments, however, there is still the need for further change. In an exclusive interview with Geektime, UST’s Senior  Vice President of IT and Head of Healthcare, Jaffry Mohammed – a 20-year veteran of the healthcare industry – notes that healthcare hasn’t caught up yet, in comparison to other industries.

Going digital

Jaffry is committed to achieving optimal healthcare outcomes through the use of digital tools; and this is one of the main reasons for his taking the reins at a multinational company like UST. “I lead the healthcare vertical for UST. Healthcare is big business, almost 30 percent of the company – at a company that  has more than a billion dollars in annual revenue. In terms of our focus, we are strongly focused on payer-provider and digital therapeutics.”

“I thought this sector would be primed for digital,” Jaffry continues. “Unfortunately, even 20 years after I started working, I still feel the sector is lagging,” he says.

Explaining what attracted him to healthcare in the first place, he continues, “Growing up in India, we used to see that everything was written on paper… Retail and other sectors are way ahead, while healthcare is still very much behind.”

Creating the ideal ecosystem

US healthcare is a terribly complex system. It’s been criticized in the past as typically displaying a “Shoots & Ladders” kind of progress, where one step forward means two steps back. The promise of digital is that it offers innovative solutions that can help conquer many health and process-related problems.

Jaffry breaks down the pyramid of U.S. Healthcare. “The US healthcare system is divided into several main players: On top are policy makers, which are heavily regulated. Next are the payors, including both government and private insurance. Then you have the providers – the hospitals, physicians, and nurses. Finally, you have the consumers – the patients.”

In a system full of independent players, synergy becomes a big challenge. “There is no perfect solution, but we should strive for it,” says Jaffry. He lays out an optimal ecosystem: “In the US, there has been a movement toward value-based care – where participants in the system get compensated according to the value they create. Each party takes certain risks. They get rewarded if they perform better and get penalized if the outcomes are not ideal.” This approach helps lower the massive costs of healthcare by reducing excessive emergency room visits and inpatient care – including excessive procedures, surgeries, and labs.

“By aligning the incentives for the provider based on value, all of the ecosystem partners benefit. This results in higher outcomes, optimal costs, and much more satisfied patients. It’s a win-win-win,” he concludes.

The digital health transition was a strong motif throughout my conversation with Jaffry. It seems that for his ideal healthcare vision to happen, the game is less about getting patients and providers on board, and more about getting the “big guns” – the payers and insurance companies – on the digital bandwagon.

“Payers are pretty excited. You will see that a lot of payers have announced their strategy – for example one of the big five payers in the US, in their investor call, made a very bold assertion that they will continue to invest in digital platforms.”

According to Jaffry, there is still much work to do, but better care is coming. A silver lining from COVID, he says, has been a massive transition to digital health technologies and behavioral change. Jaffry explains that moving providers and patients onto telemedicine platforms during COVID changed their behavior, resulting in more confidence in digital infrastructure. Patients benefited from better communication with their physicians and pharmacists, processes were quicker and more efficient, and people felt more comfortable interacting through digital channels.

Design for happiness

The nature of the stay-at-home pandemic and social seclusion took its toll on people, leading to another kind of behavioral change. According to Jaffry, 1 in 5 Americans suffers from a mental illness. The growing homeless communities in major U.S. cities is proof of this problem, which has garnered focus from multinational tech solution providers.

The mental health sector has skyrocketed up the private and corporate priority ladders. According to Jaffry, UST aims to be at the forefront of a wellbeing and mental health revolution.

“There is a huge gap – from the time that the first mental health issue comes up, to the time a person actually gets care. This is where we [at UST] are so excited about data science, about the data and the algorithms we would generate to help bridge this gap. It could help us to identify individuals who need help.”

He notes that the expected, major increase in population will contribute to the growing numbers of people struggling with mental illness. “The problem is pretty big,” he says.

According to the research, it takes approximately 11 years to fully develop a mental illness and seek care. This means that there’s room for technology to step in and help. Digital intervention could help make mental health treatment more accessible, while retaining anonymity. And digital intervention is where, he says, UST has been focusing its attention over the last half decade, long before the pandemic started – back when the word “Corona” meant nothing more than a beer.

“For companies like UST, this directly aligns to our long-term vision – our aim to transform lives. It also aligns to our capabilities; we are an engineering powerhouse,” Jaffry says, continuing, “We jumped into this space way before COVID; it was sometime in June or July of 2019 that we started to think about it.”

“COVID pushed us more, and we increased our investment into this space. There are five baseline mental health issues that are very prominent in society: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia, and personality disorder,” he explains. “We strongly believe that there are two components of this. One is the biological component, where somebody needs to be prescribed medications. And another is the behavioral component, where positivity needs to happen, where a system needs to be built, so that a person feels more and more comfortable.”

Of course, ideally, it would be super simple for people with mental illnesses to receive continuous reinforcement and care through digital platforms. However, for a patient with schizophrenia, clinical depression, substance abuse, or any other extreme psychological issue, obtaining help digitally is as far as the moon. Jaffry explains that there first needs to be proper segmentation, as not all mental illness can be approached in the same way. More extreme cases require physical intervention – though the follow-up in many cases can be done more accurately through digital platforms.

“Push out the volume from physical to digital – freeing up time for the providers and caregivers so that they can invest more in those who need physical attention,” says Jaffry. He adds that UST uses a unique methodology when approaching digital mental health solutions. “We design for happiness” – a notion the company keeps in mind as they venture further into the mental wellbeing space.

UST – an eye on the Israeli ecosystem

Throughout our chat, Jaffry praises Israeli entrepreneurs and the ecosystem that breeds them, noting that Israeli startup founders have a major advantage compared to the rest of the world. “The beauty of the Israeli ecosystem is the exclusivity of data. The way [Israel’s] regulations and laws are, the de-identified data of patients is very accessible to Israeli entrepreneurs – compared to the situation in the rest of the world.”

UST has identified the Israeli ecosystem as a true hotbed for healthcare innovation. This led the company to open an Israeli office in Tel Aviv in 2018. Having people on the ground provides UST with clear access to Israeli innovators operating in UST-relevant spaces.

“If I had to characterize what makes the Israeli ecosystem so unique and attractive for us, it is that the products we have seen are based on science. They have been tested on large quantities of data, and have been proven to work.”

UST has started cementing its foothold in the Israeli tech ecosystem, according to Jaffry. It didn’t take long; the company reports  growing collaboration with different accelerator programs and Israeli entrepreneurs.

UST sees local ecosystem involvement as an incredibly important tool for identifying Israeli innovators. As an example, Jaffry notes UST Israel’s partnership with the 365x Scale Up program, which already produced UST interest in one of the participating startups, Well-Beat. Well-Beat focuses on combining behavioral-AI to improve healthcare compliance – a target aligned with UST’s push in the wellbeing and mental health sphere.

“This cooperation allows us to get wide exposure to entrepreneurs and thought leaders and provide help by mentoring and coaching them about their target market – thus developing a scale and growth mindset. I anticipate that we will develop more relationships of this kind in Israel in 2021.”

Jaffry Mohammed Head of Healthcare at UST credit: UST