As the inaugural chief data and analytics officer of Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare, Joe Depa told Becker’s that entering this uncharted territory “isn’t merely a technological challenge — it’s about evolving mindsets, processes and operations.”

After serving as Accenture’s global lead for data and artificial intelligence for almost 13 years, Mr. Depa has decided to bring his expertise to the healthcare industry. His new role will focus on leveraging data and AI to enhance the patient and provider experience and overall community within the health system. He will also oversee data and analytics for Emory University.

During a recent interview, Mr. Depa discussed anticipated challenges and strategies to tackle them as he becomes the first leader to take on this role at Emory Healthcare. 

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited.

Question: As Emory Healthcare has never had an appointed chief data and analytics officer, what are some of the challenges and opportunities as the first to take the helm?

Joe Depa: I believe we are at an inflection point in our society where we have the great potential to use data and AI for good. I joined Emory for its unparalleled access to data that transforms lives and uplifts our community. With one of the nation’s most expansive healthcare networks and cutting-edge research capabilities, Emory has the ability to integrate clinical outcomes, research and genomics data sets to help enhance patient experiences, reduce clinical burnout, foster groundbreaking research and boost operational efficiency. 

Emory also stands uniquely poised to harness data in revealing our community’s evolving needs, especially through understanding their social challenges. Take, for example, someone grappling with housing insecurity or food disparities; managing conditions like diabetes or mental health often becomes secondary. By merging clinical details with key social determinants of health, we can better prioritize aid. In doing so, we become more than just data collectors — we are a community’s lifeline, committed to genuinely enhancing lives. 

In terms of challenges, we must navigate technological, procedural and cultural hurdles. For instance, we must create a cohesive, collaborative framework with robust data governance. This isn’t merely a technological challenge — it’s about evolving mindsets, processes and operations. 

Q: What are the most useful strategies and techniques you have learned throughout your experience as global lead for data and AI strategy and consulting at Accenture that you want to bring to Emory?

JD: A fundamental lesson is we must be laser-focused on enabling the business priorities of our end users: our clinical teams, researchers, business operations, faculty and students. We’ll then fortify our cross-enterprise data governance, ensuring data is secure, of high quality and aligns with our Responsible AI guidelines. Finally, we aim to instill a data-centric culture and provide training across the institution. 

One core principle I’m eager to introduce at Emory is cultivating an environment where every team member — from healthcare, to research to our clinical operations teams — values data’s role in decision-making and goes beyond merely providing tools. It’s about fostering a cultural shift that places data at the heart of informed choices. 

Our goal? Equip the Emory community with the know-how to grasp fundamental data and analytics concepts, especially in healthcare and research contexts. 

Q: What are the top two areas of concern you’re looking at tackling in this role? What are you most excited about?

JD: What truly excites me is using data for the greater good; it resonates both intellectually and emotionally. I am also excited by Emory leadership’s unwavering commitment to bettering lives and uplifting our community. 

My primary concern? Securing top-notch talent and fostering a data-first culture throughout the organization. While technology may pose challenges, I believe that with the right team and culture, we can surmount most technological hurdles today. 

Some initiatives I’m eager to launch include educating the next generation of healthcare professionals. Given its stature as an academic medical center, Emory Healthcare holds a special place in enabling data literacy for the upcoming wave of healthcare and clinical research experts. This entails weaving data and AI seamlessly into their clinical routines, enabling them to proficiently use data-driven tools for precise and streamlined care. Equally vital is grounding them in the ethical dimensions of AI in healthcare, such as privacy and data safeguarding, ensuring a mindful and patient-focused approach to technology.

Q: How do you plan to apply data-driven decision-making to improve the efficiency of Emory operations?

JD: We first must master the basics. There’s immense potential in using AI and automation to simplify labor-heavy responsibilities. To me, efficiency isn’t just a cost-saving measure; it’s about uplifting patient care, alleviating clinical burnout and enabling researchers to focus on research and not the underlying data sets. Done right, such operational streamlining will pave the way for reinvestment and future growth. In parallel, we will focus on building a culture of data collaboration: The world is moving way too fast for any of us to have all the answers anymore, and teamwork is paramount. 

Lastly, we will continuously explore options to use new technology partnerships for “leapfrogging” opportunities to preemptively addressing tomorrow’s needs. For example, say a project conceived two years ago hit delays. We don’t revert to that initial blueprint. Instead, we recalibrate, delivering not just current but forward-thinking solutions. This keeps us leading the charge in healthcare, ensuring unparalleled care for our patients.

Q: How do you see emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning shaping your data and analytics strategies?

JD: AI lets you “leapfrog” in some cases and provide tools to help make our end users’ lives a bit easier. If done right, AI should reduce friction in the system and help our clinical care teams, researchers, operators and faculty be more effective and increase job satisfaction. 

The downside? Without a robust data foundation and responsible AI framework and culture, one risks lagging behind, or worse, putting an institution at risk. It’s crucial that we employ AI responsibly in all endeavors but we must balance security with accessibility. 

It’s also crucial that we enable the right collaborator ecosystem, including startups, technology providers, government and policymakers so that we can stay on top of the latest trends and lead from the front in areas where we believe Emory has a unique advantage.

Q: You ran the global data & AI team for one of the largest technology companies in Accenture, a company with over 700,000 people. Why did you decide to leave Accenture and join Emory?

JD: We are at an inflection point for data, AI and the healthcare industry — a sector primed for significant disruption by technological advancements. The surge in data and AI can revolutionize our healthcare and research systems, enhancing patient experiences, alleviating clinical burnout, and accelerating pioneering research into diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease — ailments that touch each of our lives. 

My time at Accenture was rewarding. I have now seized the opportunity to collaborate with elite researchers and healthcare providers right here in Atlanta and effect real change. I’m as excited as a child in a candy shop, eager to witness the collective impact we can all make together.


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