John Tuman is a fixer. From a young age, he has been curious about how things work and how to repair them when they’re broken. “I really wanted to understand how electricity works as a kid, so I would put tweezers into the outlets in our home,” Tuman says with a laugh.
Today, as chief technology officer (CTO) at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC), Tuman is applying his problem-solving talents to one of the most complex challenges of our time: the American healthcare system.
As Tuman has grown in his career, putting his hard-earned knowledge of electricity to work by obtaining an electrical engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame and securing progressive technical roles at organizations like WakeMed and the North Carolina Department of Commerce, he has begun taking a more strategic view of problems and their solutions.
“I went from understanding things on the level of a computer to the system level and eventually to the level of processes, organizations, and communities,” Tuman explains. “How do you fix a broken process? How do you engage people in their health, and overcome the social determinants of health? Those are the really intriguing questions.”
At NHRMC, a county-owned system of hospitals, emergency services, outpatient centers, and physicians that serves communities in southeastern North Carolina, Tuman has been seeking leading-edge, technology-based answers to some of those very questions. But as he points out, the healthcare community’s understanding of a “right” answer has shifted significantly in recent years.
“For many years, the focus of the CTO was defining the internal technologies needed to enable healthcare delivery. But over the past few years, the focus of the CTO role has expanded,” Tuman says. “Hospitals have tried to improve access and to reach the consumer with digital technologies, and CTOs have been called upon to develop consumer-facing applications.”
Tuman has high hopes for two particular consumer-facing applications that his team has been working on: a virtual assistant program based on the Amazon Echo platform and a one-of-a-kind cryptocurrency program that incentivizes NHRMC employees to fully embrace health and wellness.
“We can really impact people’s lives with a program like this, and make sure that they never have to come to the hospital for a preventable condition.”
“The Amazon Echo initiative was something that I came up with back in 2016,” Tuman says. “I did some coding, just as a proof of concept, and got a really positive response from our executive leadership team. And then at the 2017 re:Invent Conference, Amazon agreed to sponsor us.”
Since 2017, NHRMC has deployed more than two hundred Amazon Echo devices throughout its inpatient rooms. Patients can use their Echo for entertainment—to listen to audio books, sports shows, or news programs—as well as for on-demand information about their treatments, medications, the NHRMC facilities, and more.
“The music has by far been the biggest hit,” Tuman says. “In 2017 when we were first doing our pilot, we went room to room to introduce patients to the Echo devices and show them how to play classical music. And when that music started playing, you could just see the relaxation come over the face of somebody who had been in pain.
“We’ve also seen people using the Echo to have dance parties in their rooms,” the CTO continues with a chuckle. “In a hospital, you constantly have to think about how many things are outside of your control—you have to rely on other people for everything, even just for getting up and using the bathroom. But your choice of music is one thing that is completely under your control.”
The initiative is still a work-in-progress, Tuman notes. But now that the concept has been validated, he and his team can work on expanding the initiative to other hospitals and other areas in the NHRMC system. “Our immediate goal is to continue to target patient satisfaction and engagement,” Tuman says.
Engagement is also at the core of Tuman’s new cryptocurrency program. Specifically, engaging NHRMC employees in their own health and wellness.
“NHRMC’s mission is ‘Leading our Community to Outstanding Health,’” Tuman says. “Wellness and fitness are important factors in controlling healthcare cost and reducing preventable illness.”
But as Tuman and other healthcare professionals across the country know full well, transforming healthcare from a reactive, “sick-care model” into a proactive, wellness-focused model is an extremely ambitious endeavor.
“Hospitals and providers have limited influence and leverage to affect individuals’ personal choices and habits, and perhaps less influence in ameliorating deleterious social determinants of health,” the CTO says. And that is exactly where the new cryptocurrency program will come into play, Tuman believes, incentivizing individuals across the NHRMC system to prioritize their health.
The program is still in the testing phases, but as Tuman currently envisions it, the cryptocurrency program will award crypto coins to employees for a variety of actions, from meeting fitness goals and participating in healthy activities to getting their annual flu shot or scheduling recommended health screenings such as mammograms.
“Our vision is to partner with local businesses like sporting goods stores, fitness centers, and grocery stores, to create a self-perpetuating cycle of healthy behaviors,” Tuman says. “We can really impact people’s lives with a program like this, and make sure that they never have to come to the hospital for a preventable condition.”