Health Tech: Richard Swafford On How NTT DATA Services’ Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
Don’t be afraid of failure, as long as you fail fast: Statistically speaking, you will experience more failure than success. Don’t be afraid of failure as most failures teach us more than the successes. The key is to identify failure quickly, accept it and change course. In other words, don’t let your ego write checks your company can’t cash.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Swafford.
Richard Swafford, Ph.D., is Healthcare Industry Consulting Director at NTT DATA Services. NTT DATA Services, a division of NTT DATA Corporation, is a top 10 global business and IT services and leading data services company worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in San Diego, CA in a typical middle-class household. The oldest of three boys, my parents kept us busy with sports and other outdoor activities to keep us engaged and working toward focused goals. Out of high school, I started my college career initially working on a pre-law program (I wanted to be an attorney, go figure). That was interrupted along the way by a marriage and my first child, which redirected me into the Unites States Air Force. I served four years (and learned many fabulous lessons during that time), and when I got out, went to work for a large technology company doing government contract work. I also took the opportunity to finish my undergraduate degree and really never stopped that education journey which now includes a bachelor’s degree, six master’s degrees and a Ph.D.
I’ve worked in a number of different industries from telecommunications to education, focused primarily on technology but also in the business of those industries. I came to healthcare about 25 years ago stepping into a CIO role for a healthcare consortia/GPO focusing on building a hosting solution for clinic members. This was my first real taste of healthcare data and the tremendous promise the future held for improving the health of communities through effective use of data. The last 25 years have seen me progress through a handful of roles including the CTO for a Regional Extension Center, Executive Director of a Health Information Exchange, consulting and advisory roles all the while developing a perspective of the healthcare industry from provider, payer and life sciences perspectives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
So many stories and so many unique experiences along the way, but the one that stands out happened when I was working in Health Information Exchange (HIE). We were working with a large contingent of hospitals and physicians integrating their systems and providing them a mechanism for sharing patient information with one another. One of the primary care physicians called me, very excited, and shared that HIE saved the life of one of his patients. He had received an alert from the system that his patient was admitted to the Emergency Department of a local hospital. He clicked the link in the alert and realized that his patient, on blood thinners, had arrived unconscious and the clinical staff were preparing for surgery. Using that data, he was able to contact the attending physician and alert him to the current state of the patient. The attending was unaware of this (apparently, he had not checked the HIE) and changed the protocol, essentially saving the life of this patient.
There are so many of these individual stories related to the effective use of data and the importance of visibility to that data. Unfortunately, we hear more about the cost and the complexity than the human lives impacted by its effective use.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think it is impossible not to be impacted by every person you encounter from day to day. Sometimes, the negative experiences have more of a profound impact on development than the positive. To not acknowledge all of them is a discredit to each, so I will pick a group of folks who affected me emotionally and intellectually.
One of my degrees is a Master’s in Counseling/Marriage and Family Therapy. My focus during and after the program was related to addiction, and I primarily worked part-time in an adult rehabilitation center focused on resident, male clients. There really is nothing more compelling and humbling than to sit across from a person who has hit rock bottom. I quickly realized that a couple of poor decisions and perhaps a poor self-image is really all that separated me from that individual. As a therapist, I was trained to reflect a flat affect; however, inside I was living out these experiences through my own lens and feeling all of the sorrow, shame and hopelessness. I have reflected many times over the years on those experiences and even at my lowest points, recognized that things could be so much worse.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite two quotes are ones that came from my mother as I was growing up. They were not said to be inspirational, but they did have that effect on me. The first, “Richard, you strive for mediocrity” and the second, “Most people try to change their weaknesses, you celebrate them.” Funny how those two have stayed with me over the years; but their impact has created a drive that kept me moving forward when I probably should have thrown up my hands in defeat.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three character traits that most led me to where I am today: ignorance, arrogance and tenacity. Let me explain:
“Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.” This quote was printed on a sign hanging above the podium in my high school literature class. The teacher of that class looked like a younger Ernest Hemingway and had, dare I say, an equal talent for bending the positive into the negative and vice versa. I can say fairly certainly, he was my first mentor, and he helped me to recognize that not knowing and not understanding are not negative things. They are the starting point of every journey, and the lack of knowing is what drives us to learn and grow. An excellent lesson to learn at 17, I must say.
The second characteristic, arrogance, again is not a negative trait either. Understanding your strengths is easy, accepting your faults is not. It reminds me of a movie quote from my childhood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations (add the snarl).” We typically define arrogance as excessive confidence, or relate it to an overbearing personality; however, at its core, arrogance is the recognition of what you are capable of with less focus on what you are not. I would suggest that many of our successes were the result of not knowing that we were not able to succeed (double negative, yes, I know).
Tenacity is the last of the three. Again, it reminds me of a quote: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win, but those who never win and never quit are idiots.” Sticking with something regardless of the difficulty is a noble trait; however, recognizing that the ship is going down and finding the closest life raft is a life lesson. I believe I am tenacious in terms of reaching a conclusion; but I also recognize that sometimes being tenacious also means accepting alternative endings.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
As described above, healthcare has a plethora of challenges. Some are, quite honestly, self-inflicted. My current focus is related to the current state of the industry and the challenges the last few years have introduced. For example, as consumers, we have recognized that healthcare has the ability to meet us where we are. The pandemic forced this change with virtual health tools and resources introduced to provide remote encounters and bring healthcare into our home. This is a pandora’s box that simply cannot and will not be closed. Focusing on services and solutions that improve the experience of the individual and drive more “virtual” services that bring healthcare to us instead of the other way around is my primary focus and, I believe, the future of healthcare. The vision is not a new one. The days of the visiting physician with black bag in hand knowing the names and health issues of all of his or her patients in the home are returning and not a moment too soon.
How do you think your technology can address this?
NTT DATA’s new Hospital at Home Solution helps healthcare systems develop new models that expand care into a patient’s home. Technologies like this will help to address many of the current struggles facing health systems and patients and bring about the future of healthcare discussed above. Hospital at Home provides a more personalized and private experience for patients (generating positive experiences and health outcomes) while simultaneously allowing for more flexible working environments for healthcare providers.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I would relate this movement to a tidal wave of change that is peaking, and we can either turn and ride the wave or become engulfed in the crash. Think about what other industries have experienced over the last several years. Few businesses today do not have some form of virtual presence. Buying products online, food delivery, ride sharing, even texting has evolved to the point where our physical interactions are limited. I doubt many in the younger generation have experienced an actual bank teller in the flesh. Healthcare is next.
How do you think this might change the world?
Changing the world is a tough feat, but I do think that this solution will improve our triple aim (improved experience, reduced cost, better outcomes) by shifting the focus to be on each of us as individuals and not as a “population.” This means communicating with us in the way we prefer to be engaged with and allowing us to take more control of our health and how care is delivered. We have learned to take control of our finances and our consumer experiences; it is time to own our health and how we choose to avail services.
I do believe that this shift in care delivery is foundational. An example is the increase in competition as result of the consumer taking control of his or her care. That is, the individual chooses the provider based on the delivery of services that best fit that individual. This competitive landscape will drive a need to build and deploy services that create competitive advantage and improve experience. More virtual care also means more of a reliance on creative staffing models. Therefore, it is critical to keep in mind employee experience when creating these technologies. We did just that with Hospital at Home, focusing on reducing the burden on hospitals and their staff.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
1. Focus on the problem, not the technology: Technology for the sake of itself is wasteful and useless. Select the technology based on the problem you are trying to solve, and you are more likely to be successful.
2. Not all solutions require the most advanced technology: Sometimes the problem requires a screwdriver, not an electric drill.
3. Define success at the start: You would not begin a journey without knowing the destination. Define what success looks like and build to that vision.
4. Don’t forget the people and process implementing your technology: The most challenging element of building technology solutions is often the people involved and processes they live by. If you forget to engage the people and process elements, it doesn’t matter how amazing your technology is, it will fail.
5. Don’t be afraid of failure, as long as you fail fast: Statistically speaking, you will experience more failure than success. Don’t be afraid of failure as most failures teach us more than the successes. The key is to identify failure quickly, accept it and change course. In other words, don’t let your ego write checks your company can’t cash.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The best way to improve your surroundings is to improve yourself. You can’t help someone to their feet if you are on your knees. Do the right things for the right reasons while recognizing that every action has a reaction and that sometimes you can’t fix it. Learn to listen more than you speak. Try to see events from every possible perspective recognizing that your own perception is tainted by your experience. There are good people who mean well, and there are bad people who mean harm; learn to recognize the difference. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you are only human. When you look back on your life, the bad times are as sweet as the good times.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I know it may sound odd, but the most interesting people are those who fall outside of the definition of “normal.” I don’t have a specific individual in mind but would certainly enjoy learning more from anyone with an unusual perspective on the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I was recently featured on NTT’s Health and Wellbeing podcast, where I spoke about bringing healthcare home and how COVID-19 enabled technological advancements. You can also read more about NTT DATA’s vision for the future of healthcare, including making home the focal point for care, sustainable healthcare practices, addressing workforce challenges and more on our website.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Health Tech: Richard Swafford On How NTT DATA Services’ Technology Can Make An Important Impact On… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.