How does IT help healthcare companies innovate quickly, while also balancing patient privacy and data security? On this episode of TechRepublic’s Dynamic Developer, I’m joined by Mike Maresca, Global Chief Technology Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, to find out.

Readers in the UK and US will likely recognize the Walgreens and Boots names, but WBA is also home to brands like No7, NICE!, Soap & Glory, and Liz Earle. Mike and I had the chance to talk about WBA’s digital transformation journey, data analytics, health data privacy, and what keeps him up at night.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for readability. You can listen to the podcast using the player embedded below, watch the video above or read a transcript of the interview below, edited for readability.

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Bill Detwiler: So we’re here to talk about digital transformation, and I don’t think over the last year there’s any industry that’s had to deal with digital transformation more than healthcare, given the pandemic and everything that’s been happening as a result of that. I know you were new to Walgreens Boots Alliance and you have a tech background at Accenture. So, I’m really interested in your take on digital transformation in an old industry, being accelerated last year. I’m really looking forward to our conversation. And maybe a great place to start is because you were a little bit of an outsider with a tech background coming in to the healthcare industry is…when you joined, where was WBA in their digital transformation process? Had they been doing it for a decade? Was it ongoing? Where were they when you came on board?

Mike Maresca, Global Chief Technology Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance
Image: Walgreens Boots Alliance

Mike Maresca: Well, Bill, thanks for having me. It’s going to just…kind of elaborate on your question about where is WBA at in the digital transformation. But when I joined, it was in the middle of the pandemic, a lot had changed about our business, but what hadn’t changed is our passion for being really the leading partner to our communities, our patients, our customers, and trying to reimagine what healthcare looks like and wellbeing overall.

We launched about the time that I joined, a new customer-centric healthcare strategy and we continue to reimagine that. You would’ve heard that announced earlier this month, as part of our investor day to drive sustainable long term kind of value, and to be customer obsessed as we digitalize our services across retail pharmacy, and a growing business within health services. It’s a bit of a new focus at the time, but it very much maps back to what we are obsessed about. And we have been obsessed about across both Walgreens, as well as Boots, both iconic brands, 170 years of innovation and pharmacy.

What we saw during the pandemic is we had to evolve and start providing vaccine services, testing services. And I’m proud to say that we were very successful at that. What we started at the beginning of the pandemic, and we had to reimagine some of the customer services. We really did invest and deliver. For instance, we now have an industry best buy-online and pickup in-store, something we didn’t have at the start of the pandemic. We rolled out tele-health services because we didn’t have our patients necessarily visiting us in our pharmacies. So that was about bringing our services closer to our customers. And that’s the passion that brought me to WBA and what keeps me excited coming to work every day, trying to really drive better outcomes for our patients and customers.

Additional digital resources

Building internal and external partnerships is key to digital transformation success

Bill Detwiler: I think that’s a really interesting perspective, and this is one of the things I love talking to CTOs about, because you approach this from the technology side of the equation, but as you describe it, there’s an element of digital transformation that is the human side of the equation. So I’d love to get your take as a CTO, as someone that has an engineering background. And, I can cop to sort of identifying with that myself back from my college days. How do you, as the head of technology for the organization, bring new technologies to bear while at the same time, keeping that focus on the human side of the business?

Mike Maresca: It’s a tough challenge, but it’s really something we’re very passionate about at WBA. What does it mean for our customers? And we think about that day in day out, and part of the investments we’re making, for instance, in cloud, which is about modernizing our core platform, is all about bringing an increased agility at the right cost point, how we deliver IT for our customers.

Image: Walgreens Boots Alliance

Earlier this year, or actually last year, about this time, we realized that if we were going to drive more capabilities, both digitally, but also in our stores, we needed a modern digital ready network. Again, keeping this customer at the center, we wanted a more immersive experience, better capabilities for our customers to deliver services that they need. I needed a modern digital network to do that. So we invested in relationships here in the US with Verizon, we’re moving towards network as a service. Totally reimagining how we deliver network within Walgreens. And we’re doing the same thing with BT over in our international locations in the UK and Ireland. So you do have to balance the technology, but you also have to figure out how is that delivering for your customer and creating those connections and driving that technology strategy that continues to put our customers and patients at the center is what my job is all about. And it’s what I enjoy about it.

Bill Detwiler: How difficult is that argument to make, or is it even an argument at all anymore to executive boards, to CEOs, to the CFOs, to the people that are looking at, or maybe have traditionally looked at IT as a cost center? But now maybe see it as essential to maintaining the positive customer relationships, but also as a way to improve operations, improve efficiencies, as you talk…to improve the price point. Is that even something that you have to think about now as CTO, when you go and you say, Hey, look, I know traditionally we’ve done our networking one way, but we want to do it another way? And in the everything as a service world, we think this is the right solution for us. When you make that pitch, even if you have to make that pitch, is that something that you get pushback on now, or does everybody say no, that, that sounds like that’s the way to go. That’s the way everyone’s going. We just need to do that.

Mike Maresca: No. Is there pushback? No, there’s partnership. I like to say, there’s partnership and with any good partnership with the business and IT, you explore reasons why in options. And in this case, in particular, we talk about networks. We saw this as an investment in the future. For instance, we partnered with Verizon, we’re one of the first 5G powered pharmacies in the world. So it was more about how we leverage the ecosystem of partnerships to drive innovation. Because innovation doesn’t happen within the four walls at WBA, it’s through this connected set of partnerships. And I think we’re really excited about some of the partnerships in the last year that we’ve been able to champion, whether it be with Verizon and BT, from a network perspective. Certainly Microsoft has been important in terms of driving our position cloud and some capabilities around data and analytics.

Speaking of data analytics, we have a new partnership with Snowflake, which is helping us to bring insights from our data. And we just recently signed a deal with ServiceNow in terms of leveraging their capabilities and their innovation to help us reimagine IT, but also, some of the customer experience. They understand that innovation agenda needs to happen both within IT, but also that strategic portfolio. Now, do dollars and cents come into play? Is it the right investment at the right time? Certainly that discussion happens. And that’s part of the partnership that we have with the business. Again, as we try to evolve our offerings and our capabilities for how we serve our customers and patients.

SEE: IT leader’s guide to achieving digital transformation (TechRepublic Premium)

Walgreens is leveraging tech to incentivize positive health outcomes

Bill Detwiler: You mentioned a couple technologies. We were talking about network as a service. You’re talking about data analytics and some of the partners you’re working with around those technologies. Besides those, what are some of the new technologies that you’re most excited about and you think are next on your roadmap to improve operations and that customer experience?

myWalgreens app
Image: Walgreens Boots Alliance

Mike Maresca: One that I would put out there is the investments we’re making around data and how we can use data more effectively within Walgreens and WBA, in general. I think that’s going to be key to how we identify ways to better serve our customers through preferences. I don’t think there’s anybody better than WBA in terms of managing the privacy of our patients. So we do keep that front of mind, but there are, in terms of driving differentiated outcomes, partnering through our health services network to drag care management gaps. I’m very excited about how we can use data to drive better outcomes. I think that’s one to point out there and the investments in Microsoft, Snowflake and others are really starting to create that connected data platform, analytics platform that is going to drive those experiences forward. It’s also going to help us transform internally.

We have better optics on our so supply chain, which is a challenge these days, as you know. We have better optics on our financials and just general better operational metrics. So that again we can keep our services going at the right costs and the right effectiveness through better metrics and data. So that’s one I would put out there.

The other one I kind of mentioned, the work that we’re doing in digital, whether it be tele-health services, whether it be the launch of myWalgreens, the relaunch of myWalgreens, that we just did recently, where it actually started from a loyalty perspective, as a relaunch of our loyalty program. It also started blending in themes of health and wellness as part of your loyalty experience. I think that’s really impactful when you can start thinking more than just the shopper experience, but more of the patient experience that’s coming through that loyalty program. And we can kind of incent healthier customers. So I would say those two, those two or three that I mentioned I’m really excited about, and I think you’re going to see even more innovation come out of WBA in the next year. So it should be a good year for us.

Protecting patient privacy and data security in today’s complex healthcare ecosystem

Bill Detwiler: Let’s build on that last point a little bit, because at least in the United States healthcare is a mix mash, right? Of companies and private entities and public entities. And you have traditional endpoint providers or points of care. You have GPs, you have doctors, you have large networks of hospitals, immediate care centers. And then you have what used to be the traditional kind of pharmacies that maybe people think of when they think of Walgreens, but that’s not what WBA really is anymore.

And you kind of talked about this, because you are talking about producing better patient outcomes and using data analytics to help drive that. But you’re also part of that larger ecosystem of healthcare providers. How do you integrate the data that you’re collecting about people and that you’re using to help them with your part of their healthcare process with all those other different components successfully, so that maybe it’s not just the script data, it’s not just that patient data, but that’s shared back with doctors, or that’s shared with the hospital, or the interactions that the doctor notes are shared with you. How do you do that as part of that organization, but do it in a way that doesn’t compromise security of the data, privacy of the data? But also everybody is on first party data now, so you need some sharing, but you also need the rights to protect your IP. How do you balance that from an IT perspective or from a technology perspective?

myWalgreens app health alerts
Image: Walgreens Boots Alliance

Mike Maresca: Well, first and foremost, I can go back to…privacy is top of mind. I think we’re best in class in that, so I’ll just put that right out there.

In terms of how we share data that’s by patient and customer consent and their ability to opt in to those programs. That is an evolving space as the health community gets more connected, again, putting the customer at the center, but that is being driven by some of the customer consent. And we don’t do anything without the customer’s approval on that. We do have a growing network of partnerships. VillageMD is certainly one of them that we partner across, again, with consent of sharing the data across that partnership and driving better outcomes. There are care gaps. There are…certainly when doctors share data with us in terms of filling prescriptions, that’s all shared. I think it’s all about driving that outcome for the patient.

Bill Detwiler: I’m not trying to put you on the spot in terms of the privacy and security. It’s to me, as someone who’s been in tech their whole lives, I see that interconnectivity as a positive and being able to, and honestly, anymore being essential to driving those positive outcomes. I had two elderly relatives that I was their primary care provider for, and it could be a challenge for me, for their various doctors that they would see, the various pharmacies, sometimes they would go to, that they didn’t have a complete picture. And so that’s why I’m always interested to hear the roadmaps for organizations in the space around that, around this interoperability and being able to sort of convince people, Hey, look, I know we want to keep this private and we do, but you can get a better result if you’re willing and we can prove to you, it’s better for your health to have everybody kind of in the know.

So, I was thinking more bigger picture. Is that something, those big picture interconnections that you talk to other IT folks, other CTOs and leaders in the healthcare industry and do you think just in general that it sounds like that’s the way in general, the industry is thinking that we need to go and hopefully we can convince people. Not convince, but just share with people, look, there’s positive outcomes from doing this and to help overcome some of the, maybe the reluctance that I guess certain segments of the population might have at that.

Mike Maresca: Yeah. There’s reluctance there. And I can just point to, earlier this month, our new CEO, Roz Brewer, had mentioned that customer centric health strategy, and I’m real excited about that. It’s going to delve into some of those challenges that we see from an industry perspective. How do you…so for instance, critical services that are needed, how you engage the customer, and certainly it’ll actually start to address the data and the privacy. So that is something we’re still evolving, but I think some of the next steps that we’re going to be taking as a strategy will help us figure that out. And it is going to, as you mentioned, it is going to be an ecosystem of providers that are going to play a part of driving it holistically for the customer.

Challenges facing today’s CIOs: Attracting top talent and keeping up with the speed of business

Bill Detwiler: I have to ask you as a CTO, I know I’m running out of time with you, and this doesn’t have to relate to WBA, but as a CTO right now, what keeps you up at night? What are those challenges that you face that other CTOs are facing right now? And how are you addressing them?

Mike Maresca: A few things top of mind would be, keeping up with speed of our business. The last 18 months we have seen dramatic change in accelerating how we use technology to drive our business forward. That’s required us to look externally in some of the partnerships I mentioned earlier, but also internally, how do we guide? How do we develop? How do we invest? Because it is just driving dramatic change and the competitive landscape that’s out there. And how do we keep up the speed of our business as we look internally, do I have the right talent? Talent has been a premium lately, I think it’s not just WBA, but every company is looking at how they digitalize their services and we’re no different, but I think from an industry perspective, and IT, is driven a premium on talent and a talent is so important in terms of what we drive from a capability perspective and how we reimagine our future every day.

So I think it’s that, it’s the speed at which our business even getting out front and trying to drive it with some innovation ideas, but also the talent that we have at WBA and how we continue to improve upon it. We have a fantastic team, that was one of the joys of changing jobs. I left a great company. I joined a great company with a great team that delivered amazing things through the pandemic. I’ve only been here 15 months and I’ve come to appreciate the hard work and dedication of our team members, both in IT, as well as the business. So, I’m super excited about the team that we have. We need to continue to evolve it because that’s really what our business requires. But I would say on the talent side, that’s something that we’re real focused on, especially as we explore some of these new technologies.

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