When the Pope came to Philadelphia in September, Jefferson Health had a major problem on its hands.
Three of the hospital network’s locations were within the so-called papal zone, nearly five square miles in Center City and West Philly that restricted incoming and outgoing traffic. That meant that Jefferson would have to house more than 2,300 employees to keep the hospital running.
It could have been a logistical nightmare played out in an Excel spreadsheet: assigning thousands of staffers to different rooms at Jefferson’s Center City and South Philly campuses, while taking into account all the necessary details (day shift or night shift? Male or female?), and then checking the staffers in. It almost was.
Jefferson’s savior that weekend? A custom-made app called JeffBnB.
The web app, built in three weeks by a team within Jefferson’s newly-created Technology Innovation and Consumer Experience division, made it easy for the hospital to essentially turn into a staff hotel. Jefferson’s clinical operations staff used it to assign rooms, and that weekend, used the app on their iPads to check employees in.
It’s not just a “Pope app,” either. Jefferson can use it for emergency situations or when another major event, like the Democratic National Convention, comes to town.
JeffBnB is just one example of the kind of projects TICE, as it’s known, works on. The 70-person team, helmed by Neil Gomes, is a nod to the new direction that Jefferson is taking: Out with the old Jefferson, CEO Stephen Klasko has said; in with the new Jefferson. A place of innovation. A place that hosts hackathons with drones and wearables. A place that admits engineering and design students in hopes of developing “creative physicians.”
(A word about Klasko, whom Independence Blue Cross CEO Dan Hilferty has called the perfect spokesman for the region’s healthcare innovation aspirations. The revolution Klasko talks about isn’t exclusive to technology and innovation. He’s the first executive to oversee both the hospital network and the university — the two had long been separate — and in his two years as CEO, he’s overseen a split from longtime partner Main Line Health, plus the acquisition of Abington Health and a planned acquisition of Aria Health, which will make Jefferson the biggest health system in the region.)
It was Gomes, 39, the polished and stylish native of Goa, India, whom Klasko hired in the spring of 2014 to run TICE, under Chief Information Officer Praveen Chopra. Klasko knew Gomes from the University of South Florida, where they both worked. Gomes actually helps design some of Klasko’s talks. (Dr. Klasko, that is. That’s how Gomes and his team members refer to him.)
We first meet Gomes in the private event room at Del Frisco’s, the gaudy Center City steakhouse.
We’re at the cocktail hour for Think Brownstone’s invite-only user experience design leadership summit, and he’s stepped away from the crowd to take a call, spending most of the hour on his phone, in a quieter area near the bathrooms. It’s just a few days after Pope weekend, so it makes sense that, when we finally get a chance to speak with him, he excitedly tells us about JeffBnB.
Fast forward a few weeks later. We’re meeting Gomes at Jefferson’s Washington Square West offices to talk JeffBnB — he’s wearing a teal striped tie, two gold bands around his left ring finger and an Apple Watch — and are surprised to find that he’s invited six others from his team to the interview. He’s team-oriented in this way. While he certainly leads the conversation, he gives the others space to talk about their work, too.
First, he offers brief introductions for each of them, like Matt Ernst, a nearly 15-year Jefferson veteran who oversees a large staff that covers the 24/7 help desk and tech training. Gomes says they call him “the Oracle” because of his encyclopedic knowledge about the organization. There’s Robert Neff, the newly installed director of app development and “a perpetual tinkerer.” Neff speaks with such speed and excitement that sometimes it seems he’s about to run out of breath, even when he’s talking about things like electronic health record systems.
There’s designer Viraj Patwardhan, TICE’s “reality check,” who leads the two-person-and-growing consumer experience team, Luis Matthews, another Jefferson veteran who used to manage the organization’s website with just two other developers (“So if you’re talking lean…,” Gomes jokes) and Nathan Vecchiarelli, easily the youngest in the room and a transplant from the startup world — he got his start at Center City’s RJMetrics. Vecchiarelli, who worked with developer Patrick Peña on JeffBnb, is the one who walks us through the app during the meeting. (He later tells us that the app would have been “dead in the water” without Peña’s knowledge of Jefferson’s existing systems.)
And what about Gomes?
Ernst aka The Oracle offers this description: Gomes brings “an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit” to a place that “hates to change,” a place that would get three months into a project and then drop it because of “roadblocks.” The old Jefferson, perhaps.
“He’s a wealth of ideas,” Ernst says. “They’re always coming out. They might be coming out too fast sometimes.” Ernst grins.
He continues: “He’ll give us 15 ideas, he’ll keep throwing them out there. He says he’s going to focus this year.” Laughter. “I’ll let you know, if you come back in June, how much focus he’s done.”
We experience this firsthand at the meeting.
He shows us how his team uses workflow management tool JIRA and the Slack-esque Moxtra. He tells us how they’re working with zoo designers to improve the UX of the hospital’s maps. He explains how Jefferson used an analytics tool called Domo to reduce the number of emergency room patients who left without being seen. He has more to show us, too, but we end up having to cut off the meeting as it approaches hour two. By then, it’s just us, along with Neff, since everyone else had to go to meetings.
Gomes is gracious, if a little sheepish, when we cut him off to tell him we need to leave. There’ll be more time, we assure him, if this is just the beginning.
And that is how Gomes talks about TICE and its work. Theirs is a team, he says, “that exists because of the obstacles in healthcare.” He’s loosely quoting from The Obstacle is the Way, the book inspired by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He says it’s not TICE’s goal to fix healthcare as a whole. Rather, they’re tackling smaller problems, like a clinical process or wait times or a logistical nightmare during #PopeInPhilly, chipping away at them in service of a bigger aim.
“If you embrace the obstacle,” Gomes says, “then you’ll always find a solution.”