Healthcare
9 minute read

How Open Talent Can Drive Healthcare’s Digital Transformation

The keys to future growth, innovation, and safety will require access to the exact skills needed at the exact right time.

Erik Stettler
Data scientist and venture capitalist who has invested in 50 global tech companies. He is the Chief Economist at Toptal.

The Turkish-German couple behind the first COVID-19 vaccine is a classic example of people flowing to opportunity—in this case, the opportunity to end a pandemic—which has long been a principal driver of economic growth.

To drive future growth and realize the promise of digital transformation in healthcare, opportunity must instead flow to people. Reversing the model allows a larger talent pool to contribute to the medical field, generating tremendous economic and human benefit as we prepare to fight modern illnesses and future pandemics.

Healthcare presents a case study for how digital solutions and open talent can drive the ramped-up and breakthrough responses to new challenges across all sectors. Seeking out the best person for any job without the constraints of geography or traditional full-time work schedules is crucial when a rapid response to an urgent matter is required, both in startups and large enterprises as they transform in the wake of the pandemic.

The stakes are high. Healthcare comprises nearly 18% of the US gross domestic product (GDP), a number that will continue to rise as the population ages. Whereas COVID-19 itself is increasingly under control as of this writing, the past year saw more than 40% of US adults delay or skip emergency care and routine medical appointments, a move that will likely generate a wave of non-COVID-19 conditions that will impact health outcomes and service demands for years.

This won’t even be the last pandemic. With so many obstacles ahead, open talent will be key to growth, innovation, and safety.

Why Open Talent Is the Best Solution to Healthcare’s Toughest Problems

Healthcare’s technological applications offer many powerful solutions for impending challenges, including:

  • Internet of Things for smarter testing and treatment environments
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) for predictive health analytics and new drug simulations
  • Virtual reality for recovery, therapy, and—eventually—certain elements of telehealth
  • Telehealth for consultations, which can bring significant savings and far better access to patients outside of urban centers. McKinsey & Company estimates that $250 billion of the current US healthcare spend could transition to virtual.

Utilizing open talent is the best solution to confront healthcare’s challenges because variety is the most powerful weapon against complexity. A complex challenge with no singular, “correct” answer and many variables requires an array of viewpoints and approaches throughout the product-development process. Transforming healthcare is one complexity layered upon another, from the regulatory and economic intricacies to those of human biology and how new threats to it emerge.

Plus, diverse and cross-disciplinary teams achieve breakthrough innovations. Breakthroughs, such as bringing a new drug or predictive health algorithm to market, often occur at the intersection of different disciplines. Having diverse expertise at critical moments in product development can beget something profoundly new instead of more of the same. Health is itself determined by diverse factors including behavior and genetics. Many new products take an integrative approach, combining elements, such as mindfulness, with Western medicine, in order to improve underlying health rather than simply treating the symptoms.

There is also the simpler yet no less consequential matter of talent availability. Engineers, data scientists, and experts in medical technology are in extremely high demand, leading to an increase in the time to fill for many of these open, highly skilled positions to more than six weeks.

The problem of unmet demand will only be solved by a change in approach: These fields’ top experts increasingly prefer to apply themselves to meaningful projects rather than pursue one specific career within one organization. They prize location freedom above more traditional perks.

Some unfilled positions for these profiles may well be based on needs that only a full-time employee can fill; however, a significant portion can be better addressed by bringing in the right expert at the right moment.

Why Medical and Life Sciences Professionals Make Ideal Open Talent

Software and data science provide foundational tools for nearly all sectors, but each includes its own specific expertise as well. Pharma and life sciences face an acute talent shortage for both software engineers and other STEM experts. Sheila Mahoney-Jewels, Co-founder of the life sciences talent platform LifeSciHub, says there are barriers to open talent in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Biostatisticians, for example, are highly specialized and capable of tremendous input. At the final stages of clinical research, at which point vast resources have already been invested, the right biostatistician can be the difference between success and failure in bringing a new drug to market. Assuming success, the drug sponsor will then have a brief period to recoup their investment, so speed is of the essence even under non-pandemic circumstances.

“Sometimes there may be only a few thousand or few hundred people with the requisite profile,” says Mahoney-Jewels. “The most qualified people tend to be geographically distributed and not actively responding to traditional job postings, but are highly willing to contribute to specific elements of a project where they may have the most impact.”

When the right talent profile is this difficult to come by, further limiting oneself to full-time hiring within a company’s respective geography can bring the odds of finding the right person to virtually zero. Allowing life sciences companies to seek out these profiles on a more flexible basis by utilizing 1099 contractors benefits both the talent and the company.

Given how rapidly needs can change based on specific projects and challenges, hiring full time to employ the correct number of people on average comes at the expense of having the wrong number at any given moment.

Open Talent’s Role in Healthcare Cybersecurity

Pandemics are not the only sudden and large-scale threats facing the healthcare system. It is now the largest target for cyberattacks, and the frequency of attacks are expected to triple in 2021.

The targets of these attacks are diverse, ranging from major pharmaceutical companies to hospitals. The recent attack on Universal Health Services caused disruptions to computer systems in multiple locations. In Germany, a hospital refused a patient after a ransomware attack, causing delayed treatment at a more distant hospital; the woman died. Health facilities make particularly enticing targets for ransomware because of:

  • The importance of the data held, which is necessary for providing treatment
  • The urgency of situations they confront daily, which vastly escalates the life-endangering consequences of an attack
  • The fast-paced and chaotic nature of their operations, which prevents time and attention from being diverted to shoring up security procedures—an especially tricky situation considering the number of devices used to capture data that must remain in constant use, making security updates a complex undertaking

A disproportionate number of attacks occur on weekends and during early morning hours when less IT staff is at the ready, indicating that hackers are using traditional working constraints against us. A globally distributed team across different time zones, augmented with on-demand experts to rapidly increase an organization’s defenses when attacks do occur, can help plug these gaps. Cybersecurity dynamics mirror those of responding to pandemics and other health threats, and it is no accident that many of the terms and mathematical models used in the space come directly from immunology.

Open talent is critical for meeting this threat for many reasons, including:

  • Severe talent shortages, with many cybersecurity experts working independently and without interest in full-time positions
  • Cyberattacks being unpredictable and needing sudden, large-scale responses
  • The need for distributed, proactive first lines of defense

Gleidson Nascimento, a member of the Toptal talent network who works with clients around the world on DevOps and cybersecurity, notes, “The black hats [hackers] are a globally distributed network unconstrained by traditional ways of working, and new tools and automation alone won’t keep threats at bay. They can only be effectively kept in check if organizations and white hat [cybersecurity] talents form the same dynamic. Most hackers use people as the main vector of attack, and we need to turn this on its head by making people the first line of proactive defense.”

The opportunities for open talent to transform healthcare extend well beyond on-demand engineers and scientists. Medical professionals can be allocated based on availability and need via platforms such as my portfolio company Clipboard Health, a Y Combinator graduate that matches nurses with open shifts. Even video games can utilize crowdsourcing’s power to solve scientific puzzles related to molecular biology.

The possibilities are endless, and merit far greater discussion and utilization. Our fates are deeply interconnected in today’s world, especially when it comes to security and health, and our approach to working together in these critical areas must reflect this reality.

The Economic Potential of Utilizing Top Talent When Tackling Healthcare

Health and economics are deeply intertwined in key matters such as healthcare’s large and growing portion of the GDP and the need to provide affordable insurance and care to everyone regardless of circumstance. All new innovations likewise must eventually confront the question of economic sustainability.

In the opening moments of Anthem Insurance’s 2021 Investor Day, CEO Gail Boudreaux stated, “The traditional insurance company that we were has given way to the digitally enabled platform for health we are becoming.” She went on to discuss key points such as their incubator, AI Center, new digital products offered to members, and enormous proprietary databases of claims, laboratory results, and other key elements that double in size every 70 to 80 days.

Boudreaux’s remarks were immediately followed by Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer Rajeev Ronanki, who stated:

“The use of AI, blockchain, and other exponential technologies are creating efficiencies at scale that were unimaginable just a few years ago. … Today over 95% of our business is in our target platforms.

“In addition, we are creating the industry’s largest digital platform that integrates our data and enables us to use our global talent ecosystems to create solutions that reimagine all of the non-value add and cumbersome processes that drive our cost structure. In the next three years, we expect to automate 50% of our work.”

Their words set a tone for the day regarding technological applications to health that other Anthem executives repeatedly echoed.

Wall Street apparently took the message to heart, as Anthem’s stock rose 1% that day and a further 2% the subsequent day, while the S&P 500 declined by 1.3% on both days. Analysts’ reactions were likewise positive, with Morgan Stanley stating, “Strategic focus on building a digital platform as the foundation for growth and a reinvigorated executive team were the key highlights from Anthem’s analyst day.”

Anthem demonstrated two key factors that often dictate success when implementing such ambitious plans within an organization of their magnitude:

1. They publicly committed to the change, with demonstrated buy-in across all leadership areas.

Alignment across organizational areas is always a key question when a large enterprise adopts a digital strategy, and in this case, it was signaled early and often. In his Anthem Investor Day Review, analyst Joshua Raskin at Nephron noted, for example, “The mission … to be a lifetime trusted partner in health, and the strategic priorities around digitalization and capturing more of the healthcare dollar came through in every one of the presentations.”

2. They understand that they can’t go it alone.

Ronanki’s mention of global talent ecosystems speaks to the importance placed on open talent as a driver of their strategy. Large organizations undertaking digital-first strategies are generally certain of the very practices that got them to their size and success in the first place, many of which may differ from those necessary to bring a new strategy to fruition, which often leads to the famous Innovator’s Dilemma.

External talent, whether through platforms such as Toptal or gained through investing in and acquiring innovative startups, injects not only new knowledge into an organization, but also fresh approaches to problem-solving. Toptal has worked with Anthem on many of their digital offerings.

In my experience working across many areas of business and finance, successfully placing the right talent in the right place to tackle the right problems is the most powerful forward indicator of large-scale value creation. Raj Vishnu, a Toptal Senior Client Partner for Healthcare and Life Sciences, notes that, “Diverse talents, driven by dedicated leaders with a common goal to solve complex healthcare challenges through technology and innovation, will lead us to the future.”

We should all root for Anthem’s success in this endeavor, as well as that of other companies with similar goals. The endgame is a safer, prevention-focused, more affordable healthcare system that is better prepared to solve both everyday health issues and the next pandemic.

With COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration well underway, the focus must now shift to preparing for the next virus. Access to an open talent market will provide healthcare companies the skills they need at the exact moment the next crisis arises. That talent will be the basis from which the essential elements of a solution will rise.