CEO Q&A: Gregory Sorensen, Siemens Healthcare North America

Gregory Sorensen, Siemens Healthcare North America CEO, talks to Brittaney Kiefer about the vital role knowledge plays in healthcare.

Gregory Sorensen, Siemens Healthcare North America CEO, talks to Brittaney Kiefer about the vital role knowledge plays in healthcare.

Siemens Healthcare published a survey in May that found most Americans want to know if they have a serious illness or injury, even if there's no cure. Why is this so important to the healthcare industry?
The survey isn't very surprising to patients, but it turns out most doctors don't think that way. The medical system is set up to help make decisions and once they are made, that's really all physicians need to care about.

For example, today we don't have good treatments for Alzheimer's that are curative. Some people say since we can't cure it, why would it matter if we knew whether you had it? To the medical system, it may not seem valuable, so Medicare might not pay for that. But to individuals, it's valuable. It's crucial that people understand there is tremendous value just in the knowledge.

How does this relate to healthcare reform?
It's easy in a big system for individuals to get lost and that happens over and over. As we think about healthcare and payment reform, one of the ideas being explored is having the individual carry more of the cost. That has complex implications.

On the one hand, it means they're making buying decisions and need to be better educated. On the other, it's hard to get trustworthy information about the way you get healthcare these days. The individual is going to be more empowered, but not everyone's going to be ready for that.

In the past, we have focused mainly on helping doctors and we don't sell directly to consumers. We've tried not to overstep our bounds, but we're not sure how much longer we can maintain that stance because patients are being forced more into decision-making roles. We're never going to be doctors or give medical advice, but we've an obligation to provide accurate, transparent information.

What are your priorities on Capitol Hill?
One of our biggest priorities is helping lawmakers understand the negative impacts of the medical device tax. We're trying to clear up a lot of misconceptions, such as the sense that there will suddenly be more medical imaging going on. We're also trying to help Capitol Hill understand this same idea that people will benefit from knowing, such as with early detection of cancer.

Another big theme is that the financial incentives being modified in new plans are really focusing on costs of individual procedures and individual episodes of care. We have to make sure we don't lose sight of the need to start off with a good diagnosis.

Why is PR and marketing important?
We have to become part of the conversation if we're going to have good outcomes. Not engaging in public discourse is not a good option in today's world, so we're stepping up our level of engagement. We're using new media as well as traditional media, including op-ed pieces and Twitter.

The healthcare industry has lagged behind others in adopting social media. How does Siemens Healthcare use it?
One example is a meeting we had for some of our top executives, partners, and customers where we talked about healthcare reform and reviewed the results of our survey. During that meeting, we sent out tweets about the things we were talking about. We also maintain a Facebook page.

Social media is challenging, partly because in medicine there are so many concerns about patient privacy and having our advice misinterpreted. While there have been some internal barriers in the medical community toward using social media, we had to show by example that it's really not that scary. If you stick to the facts and talk about real things, people are okay with it. There was a lot of fear of the unknown, but once we started, people saw it was not that big a deal.

How do you engage employees?
I've found I need to spend a lot of time on communications with employees. I try to send videos regularly and have town hall meetings where they can ask me questions. We also have ask-me-anything lunches for staffers. We spend a lot of time keeping internal lines of communication open and clear.

Tell us about some upcoming initiatives.
We decided to sponsor a new Ken Burns documentary about cancer. If you've had a loved one affected by cancer, you understand the major anxiety around not knowing more about it. Understanding and knowing about cancer, getting the right diagnosis, and monitoring it are really valuable to people.

We had a launch meeting for the documentary in June (pictured). It won't be out for a couple of years, but Burns will be touring around the country while he's filming. He will be making about 60 city visits in the next two years. We'll be at most of those talking about why this is important and what they can do to lower their risk of cancer. We see it as an educational opportunity.

As we saw with Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The New York Times about preventing breast cancer, we have technology now that can head off a lot of things early. That's going to be one of our major themes.

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