AI has been trending in the news, and the public’s reaction to its development is largely divided.
For example, the 2023 strike by the Writers Guild of America that brought movie and television production to a halt involves the discussion over whether studios should be allowed to use AI to write or rewrite stories at the expense of the writer. “Everyone should be scared of AI,” writer-director Joe Russo told Variety.
But Dan Howard, vice president and chief information officer (CIO) at San Ysidro Health has a different perspective. He views AI as a helpful tool in fulfilling the non-profit’s mission to “offer high-quality, compassionate, accessible, and affordable healthcare and support services for patients of all ages.”
“It depends on the way that you use it,” he says. “We started dipping our toes into the water to see how we could leverage it in a safe fashion with the goal around patient satisfaction. One of our challenges was with our contact centers: we get hundreds of thousands of calls a month from our patients. We need people to answer the phones and answer questions, book appointments, and provide feedback, but since the pandemic, there has been a labor shortage.
“At issue was how conversational AI could bridge that gap so when a patient calls the phone is picked up every single time. It might not be a live agent, but if someone’s not sitting on hold, it’s a huge satisfier,” Howard says. “We’ve had the ability to implement conversational AI technology that supports multiple languages our patient communities speak, is able to book an appointment, request an RX refill, [and] request basic information such as locating the closest pharmacy or doctor’s office to where they live. If they do want to transfer to a live agent, they can.”
Howard came to San Ysidro Health in January 2022. Previously, he was CIO at the University of South Alabama Health and before that Loma Linda University Health. “I was always around healthcare growing up,” he says. “My father was a medical pathologist. I would go to the hospital with him. I was familiar with that setting.”
But when Howard left high school, he had no idea what he was going to do. He was an undeclared major at what was then called Walla Walla College. His roommate had an idea: enter the nursing program. “After two-and-a-half years, you can get your RN and make plenty of money,” his roommate told him.
“I jumped in immediately,” Howard says.
His career path took a turn after returning to school to earn a degree in biology and taking the MCAT. “I thought I was going to be a physician, but it was a lot of work, and I was burnt out,” he says. “I thought about what else I could do. I love technology, and I had a friend who worked at Kaiser Permanente who said they were looking for someone to work in their information technology department.”
Initially told he would be a system administrator at level two, Howard admits he didn’t even understand what that meant. But in eighteen months, he went from full-time RN to full-time IT.
Howard describes his role at San Ysidro Health as “leveraging technology to improve the quality of care we’re providing as well as the patient experience.” This involves digitizing the care delivery process. He is currently overseeing a consolidation of five separate clinical electronic health records onto a single platform.
“It is a monumental amount of effort,” he says, “but it will provide us a truly holistic view of our patents that will offer a provider the truest understanding of their patient during a visit.”
The project, scheduled to be completed by October 2023, has been years in the making. “The pandemic slowed down a lot of our efforts,” Howard says. “It’s a very complex project. It has taken roughly three years to get to the point where we are going to embark on this.”
“Dan brings a unique mix of clinical and technical expertise to the table,” says Chip Steiner, senior product manager of healthcare practice at Kore.ai. “He is passionate about patient care and has driven this initiative with the goal of better serving patients and the community.”
San Ysidro Health serves all of San Diego County in California. “I’ve worked for larger organizations,” Howard says, “but there is less bureaucratic red tape here. It’s easier to get things done and you can see the fruits of your labor. The cultural environment drives a deep commitment to the mission of improving the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve, while ensuring we are providing access to all.”
Howard leads a team of 150 from various departments. His leadership style was inspired by former mentors. “I’ve been fortunate with all the individuals I’ve had to report to over the last thirty years; none have been a micromanager. You must learn to delegate well and trust your folks. It’s important to give them as much leeway as possible to operate at the top of their skill level. If you make mistakes or we find out things could have been done better, great. That’s how I learned.”
The best advice Howard says he ever received from a mentor was that there is nothing wrong with being in a role for a period and mastering that role. “I was in a hurry to be promoted,” he admits, “but I was advised that these are the formative years when you are going to distinguish yourself in terms of developing a work ethic and becoming a subject matter expert. Based on that, opportunities will arrive. You have to put in the time.”