Jo Abernathy Builds Blue Cross NC’s Innovation Garage

Jo Abernathy, CIO at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, formed a unit to leverage new technology, creating innovative healthcare programs and more efficient business practices

Pictured left to right: Jim Song (VP of Technology Infrastructure), Rick Chilton (CISO), Jo Abernathy (CIO), Joe Bastante (CTO), Trevor Johnson (VP of IT Solution Delivery)Photo by James Walters

Every chief information officer strives to create applications and systems that add value to the business—but this is far more easily said than done.

Technology chiefs spend significant time and effort just to keep existing systems running smoothly and securely, and in keeping up with new iterations of hardware and software. As a result, many have limited resources to spend on investigating creative ways to enhance business strategy with new technology.

Jo Abernathy, CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), is a rare IT leader who has made the digital infrastructure more efficient while creating a process to foster IT-driven innovations.

Abernathy created an “Innovation Garage” in 2016 to keep track of new hardware and software products and explore how they can be applied to the business and to improve healthcare. She felt so strongly about the need to dedicate a team to emerging technology that she appointed eight people to staff it even though that put IT over budget for the year.

“I felt like the change curve in technology was so steep that we couldn’t keep up,” Abernathy says. “We needed somebody focused on new technology to weed through the hype, keep IT up to speed, and take a proactive stance when the business wanted to explore new things.”

To date, the Innovation Garage has developed several projects for multiple divisions. One is the Octave Multiple Sclerosis Pilot Data Exchange, which helps provide better insights on devising the best individualized care for members who have MS. “The goal is by finding the common care trajectories, by analyzing our historical claims data, we can find patterns that help to improve the customization of care,” says Mitchell Quinn, an AI applied research scientist from the Innovation Garage group.

“We have used AI for fraud and abuse prevention, but the biggest opportunity is in healthcare.”

Artificial intelligence is also being used to drive a tool that can predict health outcomes such as the onset of cancer and heart disease. AI has many possible applications in departments across the organization, Abernathy points out. “We have used AI for fraud and abuse prevention, but the biggest opportunity is in healthcare,” she says. “We can develop more targeted care management where we can get the most bang for the buck.”

CarePath, Blue Cross NC’s AI algorithms, is used to investigate the relationship between social factors and healthcare needs, predicting health outcomes like heart disease and cancer. Correlating insurance subscribers by zip code, the AI application examines factors such as population density, average income, whether there is a dentist office in the community, and whether the area is a food desert where residents lack access to healthy foods. In areas that are deficient in these health indicators, Blue Cross NC could, for instance, send mobile dental care units or even primary care services. Such initiatives could significantly improve healthcare in rural areas.

jo abernathy
Jo Abernathy, CIO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North CarolinaPhoto by James Walters

“New, innovative technology plays a critical role in enabling the modern, agile IT environment required for healthcare organizations to rapidly respond and keep pace with market changes,” says DK Sinha, president of North America at Cognizant and partner of Blue Cross NC. “Forward-thinking leaders like Jo and innovative programs such as ‘Innovation Garage’ are powerful examples of the role groundbreaking technology, like AI, plays in enabling new models of care. Jo has streamlined the efficiency of the Blue Cross NC IT platform as well as demonstrated leadership and commitment to creating innovative healthcare programs and helping organizations deliver better care to the communities they serve.”

The Innovation Garage has also developed enterprise dashboards that provide sharper insight into business practices. For example, the unit, along with business strategists, rapidly prototype an enterprise scorecard tool that helps the organization effectively track progress toward company goals and better manage performance.

Building on earlier iterations, the scorecard “provides an inexpensive and highly flexible source of truth for both leadership and our board of trustees,” says Suzanne Jacobs, Innovation Garage manager. A vendor dashboard, another Innovation Garage project, consolidates disparate information into one place for a more comprehensive view of vendor performance.

Though establishing the Innovation Garage initially put IT over budget, Abernathy and her team found ways to economize in other areas that more than paid for this investment. One key move was to bring outsourced infrastructure back in-house and create a virtualized environment— technology that allows creation of multiple simulated environments or dedicated resources from a single, physical hardware system.

To put it simply, this IT platform strategy is more efficient than traditional hardware platforms and reduces the number of servers needed by the organization. Blue Cross NC reduced the number of hardware racks from 183 to fewer than 30. This resulted in significant savings on hardware and maintenance. All told, this and other efficiency projects have reaped $25 million in operational budget savings.

With significant gains from IT in both the healthcare and business realms, Abernathy spends a lot of time thinking about how to recruit and retain employees. Based in the technology hotbed of Raleigh/Durham, Blue Cross NC competes with numerous IT employers for talent. She has worked hard to establish the company as a desirable place to work. Initiatives such as the Innovation Garage and the migration to leading-edge enterprise infrastructure have paid off in that respect.

“We needed somebody focused on new technology to weed through the hype, keep IT up to speed, and take a proactive stance when the business wanted to explore new things.”

“The reason we can keep amazing tech talent is that we do very cool work,” Abernathy says. “We are a modern, best-in-class shop.” That said, she will not stand pat in finding new avenues to boost recruiting and retention. “We can’t get complacent,” she says.

Abernathy’s latest projects have centered on making Blue Cross NC more visible in the area by sponsoring IT professional events and teaming up with local higher education institutions such as North Carolina State University. She’s also working to develop a program with a community college to attract tech students aiming for two-year degrees, a somewhat untapped resource. To offer older workers a chance to continue working part-time, she’s introducing a step-down program for staff nearing retirement.

As IT proves its worth with new, impactful initiatives, recruiting and retaining personnel will be a key indicator of Abernathy’s effectiveness as a leader. “How to attract IT professionals is always top of mind,” she says. There’s proof that she is succeeding in the effort—the company won a Computerworld’s best places to work in IT award (given based on direct employee feedback) in 2016, 2018, and 2019. No doubt, more innovations that will improve healthcare are on the way.