Sreeram Visvanathan: A Prescription for Building Healthier Businesses

Watch a replay of Visvanathan's livestream

As a result of the coronavirus, changes in how we live and work have speeded up. Now, public and private sector institutions are moving past crisis management to devise new policies and protocols for healthier societies and more resilient businesses.

“This crisis has been an accelerator,” said Sreeram Visvanathan, global managing director of government, healthcare and life sciences at IBM, during a Think Leadership Livestream on June 10. “It’s been a chance for people to ask: how do I build more resilient platforms where I can react faster? I hope we don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned.”

Those lessons were a core part of the Livestream, which focused on how the healthcare ecosystem is using innovative approaches for delivering timely services, and applying technology and data at scale. Visvanathan also outlined essential steps—like contact tracing, employee treatment, and care management—for re-starting healthy workplace operations. “Everything,’’ he said, “has to be reimagined.”

In sharing his ideas and experiences during the Livestream, Visvanathan also addressed questions he has received from industry peers in recent weeks.

We’re moving from crisis management reactivity to acclimating to a new reality. What are the most notable shifts you’ve seen in the public sector since the outbreak of the pandemic?

The past three months have been a revelation. We now understand how fragile the world is, which came as a shock to many of us. As a result, there was a lot of learning on the go: from crisis management and settling things down, to understanding data and the insights we’re getting from it, then using those insights to inform policy and make the right decisions. That’s led us to the point we are at now, which is reinvigorating the economy. One of the most remarkable things has been how enterprises, industries and governments kept everything running through this crisis. It represents a successful outcome of the digital transformation journey many of us have been on for the last several years.

The status of re-opening can look quite different, depending on whether you are somewhere in the world that went into tight lockdowns, or someplace that remained largely open. What are the different challenges healthcare institutions and agencies face depending on where they are along that spectrum?

We all faced the singular challenge of dealing with the virus, but with different frameworks in place. New Zealand took extreme measures in the beginning and had success in controlling it. In the UK, however, they still have a 14-day quarantine for people coming into the country. That’s quite a range.

But we all need to remember, as we try to return to normal, that this disease is not behind us yet. Safety is still our highest concern everywhere. While the past few months have allowed us to build up systems and services to deal with what happened and what’s next, we’ll also be dealing with upswings as people come back into society and try to behave as they did in the past. 

What kind of changes do you see?

Contact tracing must be built into the recovery framework, whether on a state, city, or national level. If we want to open our economy, we must quickly understand who has the disease and who they’ve been in touch with. Contact tracing will cover a broad spectrum—from testing for infection, to gathering the data, to hiring volunteers to track down contacts of an infected person, to staying up with the latest guidance from the government health agencies and using things like AI to track daily changes of how this disease is progressing.

And of course, the data collection will raise concerns of privacy. Is the data that’s collected also secure?

How will general work life be affected?

Through a complicated set of small solutions that provide employees with the assurance that it's safe to return work. Employers must get teams back to work in a safe manner. Who must come back and who can still work remotely? Those are essential questions. A recent report from IBM’s Institute of Business Value cited a study which noted that 69% of respondents feel this has been the most stressful time of their careers.

How is the healthcare industry adapting?

They are facing lots of challenges. Healthcare providers have been swamped with COVID-19 cases. But at the same time, many of them are struggling financially. The things they make money on, like elective surgery, have fallen off dramatically. You would think that the healthcare providers are still really busy, but they’re not. A lot of healthcare workers are being laid off. And so, as we get through the crisis, they're thinking: How do I get my elective consultations up? How do I make people feel that’s it’s safe to go back to a hospital? How do I get business back to normal while preparing for the possibility of another massive spike?

At the same time the life sciences companies are focused on one thing: developing a vaccine. We’re trying to go from disease identification to vaccine in less than a year. That’s really impressive. It’s great to see researchers work together in such tight collaboration and try to find a way forward. And it gives me a lot of hope around what we can do in the future.

What long-term changes would you like to see to processes or approaches in healthcare and human services?

Too often, we provide services after the fact, in a reactive mode, but we have to get ahead of issues. Let’s look at social services, for instance. There are an estimated 300 million people around the world who are unemployed. Many governments have introduced funding to reach the individual with money so they can meet some central needs. But this high unemployment also represents a challenge to mental health, which could also have a massive cost to the global economy. How are governments helping citizens deal with it?

Also, consider the healthcare supply change. Why are we so dependent on personal protective equipment that had to come from abroad? That supply chain couldn’t function. So we need to reimagine a lot of things, from social services to supplies.

What do you think are the lessons that we will take away from this crisis?

We have to be more resilient. And at IBM we must continue building technologies that help the world in a safe, mature and responsible way. We should work with everyone from governments to private industry and education to create this new, healthier business model. And it can’t be incremental. This crisis had been a huge wake-up call.

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