CIO Spotlight: Novant Health's Angela Yochem Is Using AI And Drones To Get Surgeons And Medicines To Patients Faster – Forbes

A Novant Health hospital
When she was 11 years old, Angela Yochem’s father taught her to write code and she began saxophone lessons at the same time. She took to both, but at college she ended up selecting the sax over software, pursuing an undergraduate degree in music. The choice was easy, recalled Yochem: “No one stood up and clapped when I wrote code.”
The hiatus with software didn’t last long. After graduating, Yochem decided to take coding classes in night school and they started her on a career journey that’s led to her current role at North Carolina-based Novant Health, one of the U.S.’s biggest regional health groups with 37,000 employees and 2020 revenue of $5.7 billion. As chief transformation and digital officer of the nonprofit, which operates 15 hospitals and more than 600 clinics, she’s won applause from colleagues and peers for her willingness to promote experimentation in a heavily regulated industry that’s traditionally been slow to embrace digital change
At a recent Forbes CIO Next event and in a follow-up interview, Yochem talked about several different initiatives she’s championed since joining Novant Health almost four years ago, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up the treatment of stroke patients, virtual reality tech to reassure young kids having scans and drones to deliver urgently needed equipment and medicines.
In treating strokes, time is of the essence: The sooner an occlusion in the brain can be spotted, the better the chances of a patient’s survival after surgery. Novant Health has been using computer vision algorithms to help its neurosurgical teams analyze brain scans to detect problem areas faster. The cloud-based system that Yochem helped bring in uses what it has picked up by churning through vast amounts of prior scans of stroke patients to predict the outcome of a new patient’s scan before a CT or MRI scanner has completed its work.
Angela Yochem, chief transformation and digital officer, Novant Health
Since Novant Health introduced the tech in 2019, it has helped save hundreds of lives, according to Yochem. In combination with other measures, it has also reduced the health system’s average response time for strokes—which, at 38 minutes, was already impressive—by an additional 10 minutes. In some cases, the technology has even led to people being taken out of scanners and into operating theaters before neurosurgeons have reviewed their scans because the algorithm has predicted the presence of an operable occlusion. (A human specialist still scrutinizes the full scan while patients are being transferred to be sure.)
The system sends neurosurgeons results via a mobile app so they can get to an operating room (OR) faster. “If someone’s having a stroke, every second counts,” said Yochem. “We need to get them out [of a scanner] and get them in the OR.”
What’s striking about this, aside from the impact on patient care, is that it took only four months for Novant Health to implement the service after learning about the algorithms’ existence. That may seem like an eternity to CIOs in some other industries, but by the relatively glacial standards of change in healthcare it’s quite impressive.
Yochem, who was previously the CIO of retailer Rent-A-Center, has brought aspects of the retail industry’s approach to testing products quickly into the world of healthcare. One of her most important moves: Creating a group with representatives from across Novant Health, including medical specialists and technicians, that reviews innovations and helps fast-track the most promising ones, while respecting safety and privacy guidelines.
The company is deploying AI in other ways, too, from using it to help specialists predict the likelihood that patients will need future treatment for breast cancer to reducing wait times to see oncology specialists. Its new cancer center doesn’t even have a waiting room for people who are due to have chemotherapy or other treatments because a scheduling algorithm is constantly at work minimizing the risk of delays.
Then there’s virtual reality (VR), which is being used to help kids who need medical care. One of its applications involves helping children get ready for scans. “There’s a virtual MRI experience that we share with patients to help them envision…what it’s going to be like,” said Yochem. This simulates the noises of the machine and the experience of a hospital bed moving into it, and encourages young patients to hold their bodies still once inside.
Beyond using AI and VR, Yochem is also hoping to launch a regular drone delivery service for medical equipment and medicines in the greater Charlotte area in partnership with Zipline, a drone startup that earlier this year raised a $250 million Series E round of funding to pursue its ambitions of rolling out commercial delivery services.
As the pandemic took hold last year, Yochem and her team worked with the company to get special permission from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to run a months-long experiment in Charlotte using some of Zipline’s 45-pound drones to drop emergency supplies of personal protective equipment and medicines in small packages with mini parachutes that can carry a five-pound payload.
A Zipline drone delivery at a Novant Health Medical Center in Huntersville, North Carolina
Conor French, Zipline’s general counsel, told Forbes it’s now working on getting FAA approval for an ongoing service to transport supplies between Novant Health’s campuses and to deliver medicines to some patients’ homes. This will require the same kind of permission airlines need to run scheduled services. “We are very much hoping to [get] this before year end,” said French, though he added that it could take between one and four months before Zipline finally gets a green light.
Asked at the CIO Next event whether the drone deliveries were nothing more than a gimmick, Yochem pushed back, noting that drones could be extremely helpful in an emergency situation where roads are inaccessible or where the sheer weight of traffic makes it impossible to deploy fleets of vans or other vehicles. “We absolutely should have that capability,” she said.
Pioneering drone deliveries in urban areas is not for the faint of heart and there’ll no doubt be plenty of challenges to deal with as the initiative unfolds. But meaningful innovation always comes with risks attached. If Yochem, her team and their drone partner can manage those risks well, they will deserve a standing ovation.

source