A conversation with Robert Neff, Director of Innovation Technology, Jefferson Health System
A 2007 Drexel engineering grad, Robert Neff has always gravitated towards technical solutions and innovation. So it was not surprising when, shortly after Cerner’s acquisition of Siemens in 2014, Robert Neff moved on from his position there as a Solution Manager to work in his current role as one of two of Innovation Technology Directors at a leading Philadelphia regional provider, Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health System.
On Wednesday, April 20th, he will serve on the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (IHT2) panel “Health Systems as Entrepreneurs: Commercializing Home-Grown Products & Services” in Cleveland (for more information on the conference, please see the agenda here).
The following is a Q&A with Neff.
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Stevens: Before coming to work at Jefferson Health, you spent 8 years in various roles at Siemens and Cerner. Why the switch from a vendor to a provider? How has the transition gone?
Neff: This is a great question, and one of my favorite to answer and discuss. I greatly enjoyed my time working as a vendor. The role of product manager – which I held most recently – was by far my favorite. Some call the product manager role being CEO of the product, which I believe is a good description. This type of role fits me well because I have very broad interests. There are very few aspects of managing a product that I don’t enjoy. I find everything from building the technology, to the business and marketing models, to the legal and regulatory aspects fascinating – and there is no aspect that I don’t enjoy being involved in. Working for a vendor is challenging though, as there are many forces which dictate the product and solutions you need to create. There is some opportunity to go out on a limb, however much of what you can do is tempered by a business case or long-term goal of how a product will serve the larger client base. Switching to the provider space is not something I was considering generally, but Jefferson is different than other providers I had worked with. I was aware of the great transformation taking shape Jefferson from both living in the Philadelphia suburbs, but also because my brother had attended medical school and was (and still is) completing a residency there. When I noticed that Jefferson was hiring for a director of Innovative Technology Solutions and Platforms and read the job description, it was one of those moments that felt very clear – the job title might as well have said, “Looking for someone named Rob Neff”.
Working in the vendor space is very different than working as a provider. Things I never understood while working at Siemens and Cerner became crystal-clear in the first couple of days at Jefferson. I remember the first meeting I had at Jefferson; obviously I had little background, but I walked in and joined the discussion as if I had always been there. The discussion was how to manage the different client-machine system requirements of multiple software packages (from various vendors) all on the same machine. As a product manager responsible for technical currency at Siemens – understanding how all of our solutions could coexist in a client’s environment was top of mind. Tricks, like launching in Citrix, and browser compatibility versions were second-hand to me. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how many other systems a University must consider – beyond the clinical. Everything from student information systems, to environmental controls, to ERP. I was not familiar with these in detail, or had any background on how they all connected to the clinical systems.
The transition has been great so far. Every day, I learn more about the various systems at Jefferson and the systems we need to implement, upgrade, or add. When working with vendors I have a much stronger background in what types of questions to ask, and what to be prepared for. There is so much to understand when purchasing a new system and a lot of reading between the lines to understand how minor workflows and features in a new product will affect how things will work on our existing environment. One of my favorite things being in the provider space is being closer to the people who are consuming and using the software my team develops. Whether they be students, faculty, or patients – seeing people use a solution you have built is one of my favorite experiences – and I get to do that every day, not just on customer site visits.
Stevens: Much has been written about Stephen Klasko, Jeff’s entrepreneurial leader. How has his leadership style and vision influenced and directed what you and your team are working on?
Neff: The biggest concept that is evident at Jefferson across all that we do is that we are always striving to evolve and get better. The goal is to use re-imaginative thinking and technology innovation to support Jefferson’s; our President and CEO, Dr. Stephen Klasko’s; and our CIO, Praveen Chopra’s vision to reimagine health, education, and discovery to create unparalleled value in everything we do. Just about every decision, starting with who to hire, is directed by how innovative, entrepreneurial, different, the concept is. It is truly an environment where the expectation is to change and question in an effort to improve healthcare. When I interview people for our teams, I often ask them about their ideas for the future. I ask them to suppose that in two years they are giving a presentation on the work Jefferson is doing in a particular field (big data, infrastructure, biomedical devices, application development, etc.) that will have the audience leave the room saying to themselves – ‘what do we need to do to get to where Jefferson is?’
We very much are trying to push the envelope. I have taken the message from the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday to the extreme with my team. I’ve told them that if someone says to them that their idea/change/invention cannot be pursued, then that means they are on the right path. The harder someone pushes against an idea, the harder we all need to push back to review it.
The biggest thing is that the mindsets are changed and everyone feels very free to raise ideas or questions that have not been asked in the past.
Stevens: Describe Jefferson’s strategy around the commercialization of innovation. How does the approach to innovation differ at a provider than at a vendor?
Neff: Jefferson is growing incredibly fast. Since the time we reorganized into four pillars (including a pillar focused specifically on innovation) we have also announced letters of intent to merge with three additional health systems and a university, growing our organization exponentially. With our partnership with Abington hospitals specifically, we are a better Jefferson, and are experiencing synergies and joint benefits of our developed technology solutions as we collaborate to improve upon them. While this has been the short term focus, building a plan to commercialize the technology we are developing is something that is in the forefront of our minds. Doing this the right way is incredibly important. Across the technology solutions we have developed, some are more easily resold than others. We are currently examining methods to share/sell technology solutions even in cases where we cannot simply give a copy of the code to another party. The end goal being to enable our group to continue the groundbreaking work we are doing and continue to provide solutions that improve education and clinical care at Jefferson and beyond.
As for how innovation differs at a vendor vs. a provider – I answered that a bit in the first question. To elaborate a bit more – the biggest thing is that not everything needs to have a short-term quantitative business value. Research and new ideas are welcomed, especially in a University setting such as Jefferson.
Stevens: You are going to participate in IHT2’s Cleveland Big Data Conference next week, serving on a panel which will explore the commercialization of innovation at providers. Building on your answer to the previous question, can you give us a preview of what you’ll discuss?
Neff: I am going to cover the challenges of building software and specifically products, as a provider. Much of the infrastructure for delivering products typically does not exist within a provider environment. Sales, marketing, support are three areas that come to mind which are critical for a vendor providing a product, but these are departments that exist with very different foci in a provider institution. How to leverage your existing departments, or build new ones in commercial spinoffs, are areas I will cover. How to work with your existing departments such that they are in the loop as necessary, but also don’t become roadblocks as they try to support you moving forward are other aspects I will discuss.