Safavi started his career as a physician and was interviewed for his revealing thoughts on the intersection of care, technology and patients.
How many years did you spend as a practicing physician?
I practiced medicine specializing in pediatrics and internal medicine for about six years before I got involved in the business of healthcare.
As a practicing physician, what was your biggest frustration?
My biggest frustration was that I entered a culture organized around the providers, not patient needs. It was hard for a patient to get an appointment or reach you by telephone. It was a Herculean challenge to get a copy of your medical records.
How long did it take you to realize this?
Funnily enough, this hit me six months into the job when I requested more business cards. The office manager looked at me suspiciously and said, “None of the other doctors ever ordered a second box of cards.”
I handed out my card to nearly every patient and inquired with some of the long-serving physicians about how they conserved their cards. The response? “Oh, I don’t give patients my cards. They might call me.”
It struck me clearly then that we were meeting patients on our terms—not theirs.
Has that mentality changed?
It’s a long embedded culture from the days dating back to Hippocrates where doctors were treated as demigods. Many in healthcare now recognize that moving towards patient centeredness is an important goal.
Today doctors are communicating with patients electronically through email or social networking, so they can relate better to their patients—and vice versa.
What excites you most about the job you do?
I’m making a valuable difference on days when I help someone put a complex problem into a framework that makes the challenge seem more approachable and solvable.
What’s your hot-button issue in the health industry right now?
There’s so much talk about healthcare costs, but the hot-button issue is really about value or getting your money’s worth.
Value isn’t a simple equation of cost and outcome. It has a lot to do with the trust and relationship you have with those that provide or arrange for your care.
What’s exciting about this right now is that healthcare technology can fairly easily increase transparency of information. Using electronic medical records is a relatively simple way to increase trust and boost the perception of value.
You work with leaders in healthcare across the globe. What’s the common denominator between the people and organizations that stand out as high performers?
Ultimately, it’s the people who know and consistently remember that they’re in the service of patients. This critical mindset helps them organize their approach and resources appropriately.
I also find that high performers are continually scouring the world for examples of how to better solve healthcare problems.
Finally, they recognize healthcare technology is transformative but don’t see it as the be-all-end-all.
You’re also a law graduate. How did law school shape you?
Law school trained me to be a critical thinker. It’s a skill of breaking down and unpacking complex issues—and I apply it consistently across all the problem-solving work I’ve done in healthcare.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I must forever make the complex simple.” In healthcare today, that’s all of our jobs.
Where do you see the best examples of using technology to drive patient-centered value?
It’s happening in pockets all over the world. You see that in Europe. In the Nordics, they built a healthcare delivery system that is location independent. So an older patient with a blood clot does not have to leave their house. The doctor shows up, the IV therapy shows up.
It’s delivered to an elderly patient in New York in their third-floor apartment with no elevator. The delivery system is actually organized to meet the patient on their terms.
In markets like India where resources are scarce for many, there’s a tremendous push to use technologies such as telemedicine to reach as many of the rural poor as possible.
Who are your personal heroes and what influence have they had on you?
My personal heroes? People like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela—people who demonstrated the most difficult problems can be solved through perseverance and through patient, deliberate action.
They also make it abundantly clear that inclusion and forgiveness are very powerful tools in the process of transformation.
Healthcare is a major factor in your life—professionally, but also personally as a patient and a consumer. What are the intersections between the personal and professional?
More than being a patient, being a father and also a caregiver to other family members with serious medical illnesses—that’s what changed my view of the meaning of medical practice.
I realized that as a doctor you’re just a guest in your patient’s life. So I like to think about the way I conducted myself as a physician. I shifted from asking the question “Am I being a good host?” to the magic question “Am I being a good guest?”
It’s the same thing I now ask of myself every day with my clients and my colleagues: “Am I being a good guest?”
I strive to be a good guest in people’s lives.