Q&A: Medtronic’s Former CEO on the State of Healthcare Tech

Omar Ishrak reflects on value-based healthcare, pandemic effects, workplace diversity, and his new career
Omar Ishrak looks ahead to the post-pandemic state of healthcare, from value-based care to remote interactions
Omar Ishrak looks ahead to the post-pandemic state of healthcare, from value-based care to remote interactions

Courtesy of Medtronic

Omar Ishrak’s lengthy career in corporate leadership took a major turn in 2020. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he retired after nearly nine years as CEO of Medtronic, the global medical device company headquartered in Fridley.

But Ishrak has stayed busy as a leading voice within influential organizations, including serving as the chairman for Intel’s board. He also serves on boards for Cargill, Minnesota Public Radio, and the Cleveland Clinic. Last year, Ishrak helped launch Compute Health Acquisition Corporation, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), which closed its initial public offering of $862.5 million this past February.

In an interview with Minnesota Monthly, edited for length and clarity, Ishrak discusses healthcare leadership, pandemic observations, and exciting developments in the SPAC environment.

What’s the difference between the work you’re doing now and what you were doing in your prior leadership roles?

What’s the same is the interest in healthcare and in technology applied to healthcare. What is different is having more time to look at a broader scope. The vast majority of my time now can be [about] learning technology and its application to healthcare, and helping organizations scale it globally. [The Medtronic Foundation works with] an organization called Children’s Heartlink, based in Minneapolis, that takes physicians from the U.S. to train teams in hospitals in emerging markets for pediatric heart care. It saves lives, it’s measurable, and I think I can help them scale it. That’s not technology, but it does use my global knowledge and business expertise.

What would you say has changed for the leaders in corporate healthcare technology within the past 10 years?

Many things are the same. Healthcare is always focused on improving an outcome. Lots of good technologies that have good clinical impact stop right there, because [of systemic barriers]. Now, with technology and data, clinical trials can move faster because you can recruit patients more quickly with data availability, about who they are and what their conditions are. The insurance reimbursement process may change because you may eventually get to a value-based method [based on patient outcomes], because of the data and outcomes that can drive them.

How has the pandemic affected the push for value-based care?

It’s accelerated, and we’ve learned a lot about what we can do. The basic principle of [value-based care] is that you pay for an outcome. Without the systems, different incentives start to take place. Unintentionally, a lot of bad practices get put in place without people thinking through the ramifications, so value-based healthcare is something that we should not lose sight of. A key quote from someone is that “hospitalization is a failure of medicine.” That doesn’t mean hospitalization is bad, but if you go to a hospital, something else is broken. Value-based care will evolve and force some uniformity in the globalization of healthcare, especially with software and the accessibility of data. It will actually accelerate the globalization of healthcare in a way that, at least a few years ago, I didn’t think was possible.

How has your approach to moving technology and software to actual outcomes evolved in your different roles?

I fear the [time it takes to implement new innovations] to healthcare is way too long, and healthcare isn’t moving fast enough to leverage those improvements. I’m interested in finding ways [to move from research and development] to improving patient outcomes in a rapid fashion. I’m spending time with different healthcare companies in the SPAC that I started with two partners with the objective to scale a company to where the technology benefits can get value of the output through a greater company of greater value. I’m not starting with the best deal I can make; I’m starting where we can have the maximum impact in improving patient outcomes using technology.

What are some exciting developments and areas of interest for you?

One is in population health. That’s a lot of the work going on. Then the second area is in the uses of imaging for diagnostics and therapeutics. The third area is just pure therapeutics themselves. The new areas that came up were biotech, analysis in DNA sequencing, and drug discovery work. Especially with the COVID-19 vaccine work, there has been a lot of focus in that area, too. I’m looking to find value and also what is most exciting to me—so that I can help not run it but advise and participate. That’s the way to narrow this down. There’s enough candidates, but then you choose one for many reasons.

How has global healthcare and its supply chain better prepared itself for the next time we face this kind of challenge?

It’s impressive how quickly care delivery improved dramatically and [how] knowledge was transmitted across different healthcare systems without boundaries. It’s a great lesson of how we should work. One of the key takeaways is how to make decisions more quickly: Who do you call? How do you prioritize? If we summarize what we could have done better, [that strategy has] more value than thinking too hard about supply chains. Things are going to happen that you can’t predict. So, learn to react and how to work with each other more effectively. The emerging markets have an opportunity, with the focus the governments have on the overall delivery of healthcare in rural areas—because they’re facing these problems.

What did the pandemic teach you about how people work and how work and life interact?

What is clear is the Zoom calls have really become much more second nature, and we are forced to use it, but it is no replacement for face-to-face interaction. Especially because the higher up [you are] in organizations, the more your day is filled with making judgment calls. Listening happens in different kinds of situations, so, at a certain level, face-to-face meetings will be necessary. The other side of the coin is in terms of diversity in the female leaders in the organization. Some would leave because they wanted to take care of their children. We can, in many ways, keep them in their roles by having these remote interactions, but use it in a more effective way and retain leadership better.

What advice would you give to other leaders who are looking to create more inclusive and diverse workspaces at their companies?

Appreciate the fact that diverse organizations will make better decisions. Business is a collection of judgment calls, and those will be better if you get more diverse perspectives. Leaders should do this because it improves a business, not because they are checking a box. It’s really inclusion and diversity, as diversity without inclusion doesn’t work. Creating a framework for inclusion is as important as how to deliver it and measure it, which seems to be too often overlooked. When you are in a position of some authority and managing an underrepresented person, put your hand out and pull people up.

Learn more about Compute Health Acquisition Corp. at compute-health.com

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