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Future of Work

The Doctor Will See You Now: The Rise of the Chief Medical Officer

The role of the health-focused C-suite leader has evolved to meet the rapidly changing business and healthcare needs. 

As a radiologist with over 20 years of clinical experience, Dr. Ashwini Zenooz interacts with patients and teams of physicians through countless cases of diagnosis and treatment. But when her mother underwent treatment for ovarian cancer, Dr. Zenooz found herself fruitlessly looking for answers and continually returning to one particularly troubling question, “Why does it all have to be so hard?”

With experience working at some of the world’s leading hospitals, Dr. Zenooz thought she was well-equipped to help her mother navigate the complexities of the healthcare system. But as a caregiver, Dr. Zenooz found a new perspective that revealed the endless frustration and churn of the patient experience. She had to work tirelessly as a self-described medical concierge to help her mother wind through the labyrinth of providers, specialists, pharmacies, insurance policies, and ultimately, end-of-life care considerations. It wasn’t easy. 

“I felt like I’d been at some of the best institutions for medical training and practice. I had access to some of the best specialists in the world. But when my mother was diagnosed, I felt one thing: helpless,” says Dr. Zenooz.

Today, Dr. Zenooz draws heavily from that challenging caregiver experience to make a difference in her professional life. As the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Salesforce, Dr. Zenooz is a member of a new generation of corporate medical leaders with a seat in the C-suite. In that role, she prescribes a profound sense of empathy to patient-centered healthcare innovation. 

Already mainstream in healthcare, CMOs, also referred to as Chief Health Officers by some companies, are becoming more prevalent and powerful voices in the business world. Companies outside of healthcare and life sciences are still only beginning to introduce this newfound sense of health-driven leadership as a business imperative. 

The CMO’s Seat in the C-Suite

Why does a doctor need to be in the C-suite of a tech company or any other business outside of the healthcare industry? Fact is, employee wellness is good for business, regardless of a company’s core focus. On top of that, every company has an end user that can be evaluated through the health lens — from restaurant servers and truck drivers to accountants and architects. Whatever the role, health matters— especially as health and wellness is on every business’ decision-makers mind as we attempt a return to work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This balance between end user and employee health leads to differing roles and responsibilities within the CMO practice — often further varied depending on industry. Healthcare tends to lag behind its tech industry counterparts in digital transformation; most notably within the care experience and taking a customer-centered approach. For example, how many times have you been to different providers where you’ve had to re-share your basic medical history?

“Healthcare [innovation] is very much on the forefront for treatment —defining new robotics, medications and vaccines to prevent and cure diseases, but it’s late to the game when it comes to improving the patient experience with technology,” says Dr. Jose Quesada, Global Head of Healthcare at Salesforce and a former CMO of both Cigna and Bupa Global.

While tech, service, and retail companies enjoy the benefits of cloud-computing and the latest digital innovations, the tech lag within healthcare leads to several business implications, opening the door for waste and inefficiency. 

Dr. Zenooz says that, “If you look at waste, administrative inefficiencies and complexities occur at nearly every patient or member touchpoint on a care journey. The burden is felt on both sides of the patient-healthcare system interaction – it impacts experience and outcomes, and accounts for nearly one-third of all healthcare expenditures. There’s a significant amount of money we contribute to the U.S. system that can be invested in other places, and it has a huge impact on the patient.”

And it’s not just patients. As CMOs look to innovate within the healthcare industry, companies of all types also look to CMOs to answer questions related to employee health. 

“Take any survey about what’s bothering employees most from a health perspective. it’s almost always stress and burnout. That’s something health leaders need to address,” says Dr. Quesada. With symptoms like stress in mind, the role of the CMO expands to look at the full spectrum of health issues that impact employees and their holistic well-being.

At Salesforce, the CMO plays a dual role — not only helping to innovate and develop industry-specific solutions, but also serving as a key health and wellness advisor for the company’s workforce.

“It doesn’t matter what your company does, health matters,” says Dr. David Agus, renowned physician and advisor to Salesforce. “There needs to be a person whose job it is to pull the various verticals within the company together for one central vision both internally and externally, and that is the chief health officer.” 

That means the CMO has a massive opportunity to not only drive revenue where it makes sense for the markets his or her company serves, but also lead internal culture and productivity with a health-first approach.

The Evolution of the CMO

The role of the CMO has evolved over time based on the patients he or she ultimately serves. And while all CMOs share a background in clinical work, the range of additional experience and expertise helps them tackle different types of healthcare challenges. 

Dr. Quesada, for example, pursued an MBA shortly after a few years working as a doctor. Even though he was one of the only MBA students with a medical background, he used his MBA to develop a financial background that he later applied to the payor side of the healthcare system. While serving as the CMO of insurers and healthcare providers, Dr. Quesada tackled challenges around patient financing and the difficult choices between business profits and patient care. Again, it wasn’t easy. 

“Anywhere in the world where they have a public health system, money is always an issue. And that’s painful for a physician as they jump into the business side,” Dr. Quesada says, adding that, “right now we’re facing a challenge — for example; ventilators. Who gets them? That becomes a business decision as well as a clinical one.” 

When it comes to business decisions, digital transformation also plays a role. Before coming to Salesforce, Dr. Zenooz was Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Different from Dr. Quesada’s focus on finance and business operations, Dr. Zenooz focused on electronic health record (EHR) modernization as part of the VA’s digital transformation initiative. By giving patient and clinician care a technological refresh, Dr. Zenooz learned that her team could improve both business efficiency and the care experience. 

“On my Salesforce team, we have a focus on policy and data-privacy regulations, for example, that can enhance our ability for seamless sharing of information so patients can get better care and have better outcomes,” says Dr. Zenooz explaining the benefits of interoperability and a unified patient experience.

Ultimately, it’s not just about meeting regulatory requirements, but also collaboration with design partners and customers to ensure a sense of patient centricity and leadership. In a nutshell, the latest iteration of the CMO role is a feedback loop between company leadership and a broad range of healthcare customers to deliver solutions to an ever-evolving industry. 

“Our job here is to translate Salesforce capabilities from our Customer 360 platform to the healthcare and life sciences industries. We gather insights from what we’re hearing from the industry on one side, and then we build the blueprint for where we want to go and identify any whitespace,” Dr. Zenooz says. 

Salesforce, healthcare, and the CMO

When it comes to Salesforce and the role of the CMO, Dr. Zenooz and her team are focused on applying Salesforce solutions ranging from engagement (patient, member, provider, employee), care management, to virtual triage and automation in the call centers to drive efficiency and better experiences. 

In short, this customer focus and efficiency optimization is really about increased access. In a digital world, there is no shortage of access points for patients to get the care they need, when they need it.

 For example, digital startup health companies like TalkSpace have reported 65% growth in clients since mid-February to tackle rising mental health issues stemming from both pandemic and external causes.

Beyond helping individual patients, there’s always a broader imperative on public health, even more so because of COVID, providing opportunities to partner with state and local governments. For example, Salesforce recently partnered with the government of Rhode Island to deploy Health Cloud in an effort to enhance contact-tracing efforts. 

The possibilities and examples are only limited by the rate of technological innovation. And with each passing development, the CMO role continues to evolve to meet the demands of a world in need. 

The future of the CMO

Dr. David Agus sees the importance of the CMO’s growing influence inside corporations. 

“Think about it — no matter what your background is, health is at the forefront of every single person’s mind. Every company needs someone, a leader, who will own this focus on health as a concept throughout the organization,” he explained.

As the importance of health evolves within businesses, Dr. Agus points out that health plays just as much a role in product development and market opportunity as it does for employee happiness and productivity. It’s why you see leading companies like Amazon, Alphabet, Walmart and others prioritizing the role.

“Companies are starting to realize that there’s going to be a renewed focus on health,” he said. “If you make your employees healthier, they’re going to be more productive. They’re going to be more passionate and they’re going to be more creative, which will help every aspect of your company.” 

In addition to the present focus, Brian Solis, Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce, sees the CMO providing an important new perspective as companies seek to develop new solutions in uncertain times. 

“We live in new, unusual times, and therefore we need new and unusual models to guide us moving forward,” he said. “There are no best practices or case studies to guide us moving forward. With the CMO, we can reimagine the future through the lens of a medical professional.” 

Dr. Zenooz explains that regardless of where the role goes next, ultimately, every CMO is still a clinician first and foremost.

“I take all of the things that I’ve learned as a doctor, whether it’s taking care of people, or being a clinical administrator, and I help companies understand what matters most in this industry.”.

Now, like the role of the CMO itself, Dr. Zenooz’’s questions have evolved. Instead of asking patients about their symptoms, she asks an entire industry how it can improve healthcare practices for patients, practitioners, and administrators. If she and her CMO peers are successful, others will never have to ask the question, “Why does it all have to be so hard?”