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Mark Long, VP of digital innovation at Providence St. Joseph Health, during a live recording of GeekWire’s HealthTech Podcast. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Think about the last time you saw a doctor. Chances are you had to wait days, weeks or months for an appointment. You probably had to fill out a clipboard full of forms, wait around, then be asked all the same questions again. It’s not exactly a fun experience.

Mark Long thinks about this situation a lot, because it’s his job to make it better.

Introducing GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast, exploring the frontiers of digital health

Long is the vice president of digital innovation at Providence St. Joseph Health, so he spends his working days leveraging technology to completely reinvent the experience of seeing a doctor.

“You normally think about how healthcare is something you do everything you can to put off dealing with, because the transactions of it are so difficult,” Long says on this new episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast. “Once you get to the doctor, that’s great, but the rest of the system is often a little challenging.”

Long believes it shouldn’t be that way. He’s working to make those doctor’s visits easier today, while changing how he and others at Providence think about treating patients far into the future. Providence is the sponsor of this inaugural season of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast.

“We’re trying to become a health company, not a healthcare company,” he said. It may sound like a small difference, but Long says it’s actually an important one. He asks himself: “How do we become a partner in your health, not a place to go when you’re sick?”

“If we really want to get to the point where we’re your partner for yourself and your family, we need to create that relationship and we need to deserve and earn the right for that relationship,” he said.

One of the ways the health system is trying to change that dynamic is through technology, and in Long’s case, using technology to make the patient experience easier and more convenient.

Telemedicine is a great example. Say you have a minor health problem, but can’t take time off work to get an appointment. A video call with a doctor during your lunch break could do the trick just fine. The same goes for a situation where your normal doctor doesn’t have an open appointment for days or weeks.

Long said people are often hesitate to try new ways of interacting with a doctor — it’s strange for something so constant to change dramatically. People are often skeptical about ditching traditions like the clipboard full of paper and the array of machines that measure their vitals. But he said patients who do try the video calls love them.

“Many of our patients are saying, ‘This was really fantastic, I felt heard. I felt listened to. The person was looking at me 98 percent of the time instead of 70 percent of the time,'” he said.

Because those calls are also more convenient, people are also more likely to seek care instead of putting it off. That means there are more opportunities for the health system to catch a problem early on, Long said.

From left to right: Health Tech Podcast hosts Clare McGrane and Todd Bishop speaking with Mark Long. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Long is also working on tech solutions that help patients get in-person appointments.

Say you have a health problem at 6 p.m. on a Friday, and your doctor’s office has closed for the weekend. Through Providence’s app, a patient could find the nearest urgent care clinic — say in a Walgreen’s down the street — and book an appointment for that evening, possibly avoiding a long, costly trip to the emergency room.

Long and his team are even piloting an Uber-like service to request house calls from doctors or nurse practitioners. He said that program is in the very early stages, and is particularly interesting because it’s so new.

“It’s really trying to understand the demand in the market,” he said. The people who are using the service vary greatly, “from somebody who’s about to go on an international business trip that needs to be seen in their office” to “folks who haven’t been out of their house in years,” he said.

Pilots of all those tech solutions have already rolled out in Seattle and other places around the country. But Long said all these choices create a new, even bigger problem.

He said when people have so many options for care, they “don’t really understand, ‘OK, well, when do I go to which one? And is it covered? And what’s my co-pay?’ So we have a lot of work to do as we’re expanding choice to really try and educate folks [on] what’s the right venue for them.”

Long talks about patient care in a way that’s vastly different from many healthcare professionals, and his background is one reason for that.

He started his career as a research scientist in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on robotics for satellites. He went on to work at several impactful startups in the tech and healthcare spaces and even spent a time running logistics for Amazon. Long said that background has helped shape one of his most staunch views on healthcare: Better care requires more and better data, and it’s particularly important to share data between systems that currently don’t mesh together.

“The absolute most important thing we need to do is this idea of data liquidity between all of our siloed systems, so that over time we can bring all this data together,” he said. That data could lead to anything from personalized healthcare assistance to “a surveillance system that’ll predict somebody leaving the hospital that really shouldn’t. And it really comes from that data as a starting point.”

Listen to the podcast above, and watch the behind-the-scenes video below.

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