Honoring a decorated career
DeSalvo was on hand to receive HFMA’s Richard L. Clarke Board of Directors Award, which recognizes individuals or organizations for making significant positive contributions to the profession of healthcare or the financing of healthcare services, or for benefits to society related to healthcare.
In remarks to attendees, she described the career path that took her to the chief health officer role at Google Health. She said she’s long understood that “health is more than healthcare.”
Those lessons first became apparent early in her career as she cared for patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The vast majority were from marginalized communities.
“My patients were typical of those served by many safety nets,” she said. “And instead of catching them, they often fell through.”
She remembers “many long days in clinic feeling frustrated about how much need there was for helping patients with all these nonmedical needs. And I felt really ill-equipped to help. I was trying to solve the problems I saw as a doctor through the lens of how I was trained, but what they needed from me went far beyond my medical training.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina drove home the point even more, motivating DeSalvo to ultimately change course in her career. She sought to devote herself “not only to improving access to the best-quality care, but also to address the social determinants of health … not only through our health system, but eventually through public health service.”
After serving as health commissioner for the City of New Orleans, DeSalvo accepted a high-ranking role at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, hoping to take the lessons she’d learned and apply them on a national scale. With Google Health, which she joined in December 2019, the scope of the opportunity became even bigger.
“This company was well-positioned to positively impact people's health at an immense global scale,” DeSalvo said. “I also [joined] because I believed that our tools and technology would be able to augment care and help drive equitable access, not only to great healthcare but to optimal health for everyone.”
A focus on reliable information
The goal at Google Health is to “meet users where they are through products and services,” DeSalvo said.
Noting that three-quarters of people search for health-related answers online before seeking care, DeSalvo said it’s vital to ensure access to high-quality information. For example, on YouTube, “We're elevating authoritative and culturally relevant health information, partnering with organizations like the American College of Physicians, the New England Journal of Medicine and also with influencers who already have broad audiences that follow them to help spread those important evidence-based messages.”
Google Health also strives to anticipate what users will need once they have the information they sought.
“We make it easier to find a doctor who takes your insurance, who speaks your language, and then helping people to actually book an appointment directly online,” DeSalvo said. “This is part of our way of curating the ecosystem, your ecosystem, to make it easier for people to find you.”
Google Health also partners with providers “to support their efforts to provide everyone with access to the highest-quality, most equitable care,” DeSalvo said. Examples include applying Google’s expertise in organizing information through various cloud solutions and products that improve electronic health record use and interoperability. AI solutions are another area of focus.
“My hope is that in a few years’ time,” DeSalvo said, “people are no longer asking, ‘Why is Google in health? But rather, how did we ever do it without them as a trusted partner?’”
Keynote speaker Joel Selanikio puts legacy providers on notice
Societal and technological trends are creating a scenario in which “many of the healthcare companies in the world today will not be around 10 years from now,” Joel Selanikio, MD, a physician entrepreneur focused on the intersection of health and technology, said during Wednesday’s keynote presentation.
Selanikio pointed to the way the iPhone usurped the mobile technology market from the BlackBerry starting in 2007. The shift represented the emerging dominance of consumer-focused products over business-focused products.
“It's really impossible, I think, to overestimate the extent to which this consumerization of technology has taken hold,” Selanikio said.