How Marcus Johnson Is Transforming Highmark Health From Within

Marcus Johnson is leading the effort to automate processes and improve patient outcomes at Highmark Health

After nine years on the road as a business consultant, Marcus Johnson was ready for a new opportunity. He loved the work—the structured problem-solving, the teamwork, and the creative demands—but he missed his family, and he was over the lifestyle of constant travel.

That’s when Highmark Health called. They were looking to build an internal consulting group: a team that could assess processes across the enterprise and implement solutions without the expense and arduous onboarding of hiring outside consultants. Highmark Health, in the early stages of a bold strategic plan in concert with evolutions in American healthcare, needed nimble enterprise services. For Johnson, it meant a chance to continue doing the work he loved without the punishing lifestyle, as he joined the organization as its vice president of enterprise effectiveness.

Marcus Johnson, Highmark Health Courtesy of Highmark Health

“I looked at that and said, ‘This is perfect,’” he recalls. “I get to continue this work: the problem-solving, the use of analysis, the use of quantitative and qualitative data to help find insights, and I get to see my kids every night.”

A national health and wellness organization headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Highmark Health is the second-largest integrated delivery and financing enterprise in the United States. Forty thousand employees support a diverse portfolio, with businesses in insurance, delivery, eye care, dental care, and more. The size of the system is daunting, but Johnson’s unit looks across its entirety.

Plus, its size and status as the only plan-led integrated delivery and financing system in the United States put Highmark in a unique position to drive a clinician-led transformation to quality in care, Johnson says—and that’s the heart of the strategic plan. “We have strong incentives to do that,” he explains. “We’re bringing together the health plan and provider system to move care into the community and closer to the patient, delivering better health that is outcome-oriented and a better experience for our members and patients.”

The first step was to gather data. Highmark Health’s workforce knows their work best, and it is empowered to provide feedback and solutions to an attentive leadership. Johnson’s team asked the workforce about the possibilities and perceived threats around automation, and received a surprisingly positive response.

“We do a lot of this through workshops,” Johnson explains. “We ask people for ideas around what can be automated, and we ask for their hopes and fears. We’ve been pretty surprised. Typically, the list of hopes has been a lot longer than the list of fears. People have been excited because they could stop doing work that they don’t really like to do.”

Overall, Johnson and his team recognized that many highly trained Highmark Health professionals were mired in simple, repetitive tasks—financial wizards writing manual journal entries, nurses replicating data entries, and so on. He adds, “A lot of the work we’ve been able to automate has been time-consuming, rote work that we have highly skilled people doing—which frees those hours for them to do the right work.”

“A lot of the work we’ve been able to automate has been time-consuming, rote work that we have highly skilled people doing—which frees those hours for them to do the right work.”

“As an integrated partner woven into the fabric at Highmark, we support Marcus’ vision to optimize processes and maximize Highmark’s professional talent,” says Scott Barnyak, founder and chief sales and marketing officer at SDLC Partners. “Our collaboration continues to focus on supporting their ongoing transformation with practical yet innovative technologies such as robotic process automation.”

The workforce was initially skeptical of the team’s follow-through. Certainly it’s simpler to gather ideas than to implement them, and few great ideas evolve into great solutions. But Johnson’s group had to build the trust with the workforce it needed for a strong, lasting partnership. By being realistic about its bandwidth, the team committed only to the efforts they knew they could follow through on, and the results have been promising.

The other major fear was job loss. Successfully addressing this fear would protect the workforce and continue to build trust. Highmark Health is always hiring, notes Johnson, so they have been able to address concerns around job loss with a retraining program. The consulting team has partnered with human resources to create a comprehensive retraining platform so that Highmark Health employees are doing the right work for the company and themselves.

Marcus Johnson says his leadership approach involves getting feedback from his team before making decisions. Courtesy of Highmark Health

“We feel like that capability is very strong,” he says. “HR has the right training program in place, with people who are dedicated to internal mobility, working with people to get them into the right roles.”

Going forward, Johnson is already building a vision of what technologies can accelerate Highmark Health and support its strategic evolution. He points to natural language processing, machine learning, and AI as tools that will eventually transform the way Highmark Health works. While those technologies evolve, the consulting group can continue to optimize processes and support strong relationships between parts of the enterprise.

“It’s working in a more horizontal basis and having our workflow through the organization in a clean fashion, without divisions between functions, departments, and the business getting in the way of the right solution and experience for our patient,” he explains. “I’d love to see that we stop doing a lot of things we don’t need to be doing. We have an opportunity to ask, ‘Do we really need to be doing this at all?’”

With that, Highmark Health has proven the right home for Johnson—a perfect environment for his continuing growth as a leader.

“When you’re driving through a lot of change, that tests how you lead your team, your colleagues, and the people going through that change,” he says. “I’m continuing to hone my skills here.”

DayBlink is excited to partner with Marcus Johnson and Highmark Health to transform the delivery of healthcare services nationwide. As a committed member of the thinkUP ecosystem, DayBlink will collaborate with the Highmark team to leverage our Agile methodologies, automate processes, create efficiencies, and accelerate the delivery of business value.