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Diana Nole, MBA is EVP/GM of the healthcare division of Nuance, a Microsoft Company, of Burlington, MA.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
I’ve been with the company just a little over two years, but I have been around healthcare IT for about 15 years, which makes me a little bit further along than just a novice, I like to say, because it’s such a complex industry. Since we last spoke, Nuance has become a Microsoft company. Nuance is a technology pioneer, focused on conversational AI and ambient intelligence and working on how to put things into the intelligence, into the workflow. We are heavily focused on reducing the administrative burden of clinical documentation. Our offerings are used widely throughout the US and globally.
Microsoft’s Cortana doesn’t have the adoption of competing voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, and Google. Was that part of its interest in acquiring Nuance?
There were probably a few levels of interest. We are heavily into the deep workflow of clinicians and the patient experience. We try to understand heavily with our customers and our partners what’s going on in terms of patient care and this focus on the Quadruple Aim. We have a deep presence. We are in 77% of the US hospitals and I think we were quoted as being in 80% of radiology. In healthcare, it’s about how the technology is being used to actually enhance patient experience, physician experience, et cetera. There was the actual technology that we have, but even more so, the relationships that we have and the clinical care. Then, the deep relationships that we have with our EHR partners and other partnerships were very much of interest to them.
Now that Nuance and Cerner are owned by highly competitive technology giants, how will Nuance’s relationship with Cerner customers work?
We deeply value these relationships, as you can imagine. Our solutions have to work within the workflows that our physicians, nurses, and radiologists use. We have had ongoing conversations with Cerner since the acquisition. Clearly, we are deeply committed. We have continued to advance our solutions, such as DAX integrating with Cerner’s virtual scribes. There’s a lot of opportunity here, and certainly we don’t want to disrupt that.
That has been a very key theme of our conversations with Microsoft, that they value that. They are deeply committed to their partnerships and the systems integrators that they work with. That’s a core backbone of who they are. We continue to advance — whether it’s Cerner, Athenahealth, Epic, et cetera — these relationships, because the only way that we can be efficient in the way that we deploy our technology is to do it with them.
Oracle says that it will use its own voice AI product as the primary user interface to the Cerner clinical systems it now owns. What challenges do you see in that approach?
We obviously always know that there will be competition out there. We have been at this for a long time. Medical technology and terminology is very different from just straight conversation. We have invested deeply over many, many years and have many years of experience. We respect that others will come along, and that’s why we constantly are working on our own technology advancement and why we have moved from our medical technology and things like Dragon Medical, which is used by so many people, into more of the ambient environment, which is even more complex. You have to keep pushing yourself, and competition helps you move along because you need to stay ahead of that if you are going to survive and be effective.
I can’t speak specifically to what Oracle’s plans might be, but certainly for us, we are deeply invested in continuing to advance our Dragon portfolio, our DAX portfolio, and other things with our partnerships that we have and investing in the technology. Now we have a phenomenal owner in Microsoft that can help us advance those solutions while also having the cloud infrastructure and cybersecurity infrastructure that they bring to the table to help complement the first-party applications that we have.
What new capabilities does the cloud bring to healthcare?
We have deeply been invested in cloud. The big reason that we are trying to help our healthcare customers move into the cloud is that, historically, we have had a lot of on-premise solutions. It as always challenging to do upgrades, and you want to get the innovation out there as fast as possible. But we also know healthcare has significant worries about privacy and security. We are evolving at a good pace. Certainly with someone like Microsoft, we have deep investments on that side. Once you get everything in the cloud, then we have a good infrastructure to start to unlock other kinds of use cases for the information that resides within the cloud, under the constraints of doing what we’re supposed to be doing as good stewards of the data.
As we have started to think about the combination of our two companies, we think about analytics, reporting, and how you do communication. A lot of things in healthcare are about getting the communication to the right player and the care team. How do you use communication tools to be able to do that?
Also, things that help enable different kinds of care settings. I’ve heard people talk about the hospital at home. We certainly have seen virtual care advance during COVID, not just with telehealth, but other types of thinking and capabilities. That is helpful because it tries to get at a better physician experience, a better patient experience, while also hopefully reducing cost and not sacrificing quality at all.
Hospital consolidation that creates larger, more tech savvy health systems has generated ideas around scaling patient engagement, call centers, and other centralized consumer-facing technology. Where do you see that progressing?
I think we learned a lot during COVID about what people would accept. We have a tremendous ways to go with consumerization and what you can do to engage patients while also recognizing that you have to deal with accessibility. Not everybody has access to things such as the internet. We also have learned that, so we have to be careful. We have made advancements in basic blocking and tackling, such as outreach around reminders. As a patient, come in and get your mammogram, get your annual exam, get your preventative care. That makes a huge difference. But other settings are starting to be considered, such as better management of clinical trials with a virtual patient clinical trial cohort.
With regard to the care setting, not just telehealth, what can you do in monitoring a patient with a more chronic condition at home? Maybe that is more integration with med tech, home devices, and things where you can identify if and when a patient needs to come in for a visit or to have follow-up. Always trying to prevent that rising risk of issues with the patient. There are definitely opening thoughts around other areas beyond just the typical reminders and telehealth. more sophisticated things that are going to be coming.
Voice assistants are being enabled to support consumer health needs at home, including remote monitoring. How do you think that will progress?
Voice assistants, definitely. We probably have seen more initially on the roadmaps with physicians. The physicians can use “Hey, Epic” or “Hey, Cerner” or “Hey, Dragon — bring up this, bring up that.” It’s much quicker than clicking, because you can speak faster than you might type or click certain things.
But you are also right that in a conversational way, it is easier for a patient who doesn’t know exactly what they’re supposed to be looking for, or how they get basic information. We’ve had some solutions where it’s just simple things that the patient is looking for, such as, “Remind me about this situation that I should be taking care of,” or “Where is the valet parking at the appointment I’m going to?” Just basic interactions that used to flood the healthcare system with basic conversational questions. Those kinds of things can be done now through easy to use, consumer-oriented types of applications, but specifically for healthcare.
DAX has been out for a couple of years. How is it being used and what work remains?
It has been about two years since DAX was announced during COVID. It almost matches the exact timeline. Definitely we would view it as being at the Slope of Enlightenment, where our customers and partners are proving the benefits and use cases within their organizations. Initially, people would start with groups of 25 physicians. Now we are starting into the hundreds, and we have implementations that are well into the thousands. What they are trying to prove is who the right user for it is and where the most opportunity is.
We started out with certain specialties where we thought it would be easy to use and produce a good ROI. We have seen that family medicine and internal medicine have more of an opportunity to use the system than anywhere else. That is where the burden of clinical documentation creates the highest levels of burnout and where we have a shortage, either already in existence or coming.
We published some great opportunities with our customers on what they are seeing. They get better patient experience input, since the patient feels like the physician is talking to them face to face and focusing on them. They understand what they are supposed to do when they leave a visit. As to the physician experience, they are less burned out. They have more of their own time. They can get home. They can take on more patients if they want. Even though it has been two years, we are still in the early days, but definitely have proved a significant ROI for those who are using it.
What has changed in the months since the acquisition closed and what changes do you expect?
I would say that not a lot has changed. At Nuance and at Microsoft, we continue to remain focused on our customers. We continue to deepen relationships with our EHR partners. We are now part of the Microsoft organization. We are a Microsoft company. What we have done since the close in March is to focus on what our shared vision looks like. Our customers are looking for that. They are optimistic. They realize the big, complex challenges that face healthcare, and they really want to have Nuance and Microsoft look together at how can we enhance the ability of clinicians to care for their patients and deliver better outcomes, where technology helps to enable it instead of getting in the way.
We are focused on that right now, and we are involving customers and partners in those conversations. When you think about the combined power of Nuance and Microsoft, where do you see opportunities, and where do you think we should work on this? That’s what we’re focused on, so that we can begin to unlock some of the opportunity that spans both of our companies over the course of the next year.
Another thing we are excited about at Nuance and Microsoft is a partnership with The Academy around an AI collaborative. It’s early days, just announced recently, but it’s an effort to bring together clinical and operational executives not only from provider organizations, but from payer, med tech, and life sciences. We will create a dedicated sandbox for us to experiment with AI and have them, as users of AI, tell us where it will work or not work to guide some of this collective vision that that we are working on.