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Steven Issa

Steven Issa | Insights from Industry Leaders

Chief Digital Officer at the Australian Digital Health Agency

Steven Issa is the Chief Digital Officer at the Australian Digital Health Agency. Steven is an experienced senior executive and has worked in a variety of public and private sector environments including being a lecturer at the University of Sydney. He is now responsible for reviewing international experience and trends and local innovation to help set the national digital health agenda for the Australian health sector.

He recently sat down with Managing Director, Wayne Bruce, to discuss his career and the digital sector. Some of the topics they touched on include:

  • His first job out of university and how it shaped his future career path
  • Who inspired him the most in his career
  • The biggest challenge he faced in his career
  • What attracted him to the Australian Digital Health Agency
  • His reasons for moving into the digital health space
  • What he believes are the key attributes of people who have transitioned into the digital space and been successful
  • The future of healthcare
  • Steven’s top tips for aspiring leaders

What was your first job out of university and did that help shape your future career?

We’re talking late 90’s, early 2000’s, I had just graduated from Sydney University with a computer science degree and got into a graduate role at Insurance Australia Group. A really high risk-based organisation where I became a software engineer, so a programmer and then a network engineer as part of the rotation. What I learnt from that was that is I actually preferred talking to people than working with machines and that taught me was that probably wasn’t the right career path, down to a more traditional computer science approach. I quickly left there and ended up at Accenture and then progressed to a management consultant career for the best part of a decade.

Who has inspired you the most?

I’ll tell you the people are the ones who most inspired me the most throughout my career there are those who care about people more than the technology. I’ve come from a technical background in computer science and I’ve got a foot in mouth and I make no apologies for it most of the time, but it’s those leaders who took me aside and cared more about me as a person, rather than a real stark deliverable or an outcome and the human side of the vocation. I was inspired most by people who cared about their people in the first instance, and then everything flowed from there. So those real people-leaders inspired me the most throughout my career.

Do you think that’s the most important attribute of a good leader?

If you just care about the people and not the deliverables, you’re likely to fail. But for me, if I was to rank them, I’d say people first, technology second.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your career so far?

The biggest challenge in my career I’d say has been when to move; when to make the right decisions; is it right for me, it is right for my family; am I going to see my wife and children more; is the move I’m making really in the long-term interest of my career; or am I going in the right direction in terms of what the industry tells me I should or shouldn’t be doing.

I’ve landed in some really weird places through a management consultant career, whether it be three weeks or three-month engagements. This is probably one of those ones where I’ve landed as a Chief Digital Officer of a federal health digital agency, and if you ask me five years ago, is that where you would have been, absolutely not. The real challenge for me has been making the right decisions for my career.

Have you found health to be different in any way to the other industries you’ve been in?

Absolutely, health is very different, and I say that for numerous reasons. One, it’s more complex and there are so many players in health, whether it be the peaks, the government, the small business owner who’s a doctor, the various lobby groups, the consumer advocates. Other places I’ve worked or industries I’ve been in haven’t had that level of complexity. When you layer the complexity with real-life outcomes and the effect that you have on humans, putting those two things together, it’s a beast that I never thought I would experience but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Have you found it more rewarding in that sense?

Absolutely. I come to work, I get out of bed, I’ve got the ability to really affect the lives of all Australians. I’ve had previous roles where I was looking at increasing profit of a business or reducing the cost of goods sold, or creating a digital platform to sell music and numerous things that I’ve done in my career. But nothing has had a real impact on broader populace like this one has.

What attracted you to the Australian Digital Health Agency?

The attraction to the agency was obviously a federal footprint, and your ability to have that influence on a large cohort of Australians, rather than a smaller subsection. In my previous role I was leading the Service New South Wales footprint across the state, I had a big team and lots of points of presence and doing important things such as renewing licenses, registering cars and doing birth deaths and marriages. But when you think about that in the context of New South Wales and get presented with an opportunity like doing health for all Australians, and an ability to converge the technical side of my career, customer experience and service design part of my career into one. That was really was what drove me, the convergence of technology and customer experience, health as well as a broader mandate.

What are the attributes of people that work on these big change programs in health, and what makes them successful from a technical but also a personal quality point of view?

That’s a difficult question and I think goes back to the reason I ended up here. I think what makes people successful is purpose. I came to this role because I felt like I had a purpose. I’ve got a son with special needs, he’s got a list longer than your arm, with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, developmental delays, so, I was in a role where I was making a difference to people registering cars, getting licenses and registering births. but as you go through life experience, I ended up in the hospital with my son on a cocktail of medication, without a digital history of that. I was having to try and explain to clinicians along the path, there was a real purpose for my move into healthcare. You say serendipity sometimes, but it was purpose. I wanted to make a difference to parents like my wife and me, children like my son, and anyone with acute or ongoing health needs. Purpose is probably the first thing. When you’ve got a purpose, whether it be a personal purpose like mine or a technical purpose, I think that’s the place to start and then as you go from there, it’s where do you take your career.

For me, it was that convergence of technology and customer. We say customer in healthcare, and sometimes people get offended by it because patients aren’t customers, but when I talk customer, I’m talking customer of this agency, whether it be the government, vendors, patients, all of those things combining on that customer experience, the technology and purpose. If you find a place where you could do that, you’re going to be successful.

What are the personal aspects or personal attributes that people need to be successful?

You need to have kind of a high level of EQ, IQ is important, but you need the emotional stuff when you’re dealing with so many diverse stakeholders with different agendas. So you’ve got government, you have to know to deal with them in a particular way or a consumer advocacy group who have got a different point of view, or the peaks, or software vendors. Knowing how to adapt to your differing stakeholder groups is probably the most important. There’s also the technical side obviously, there’s lots of things you can learn and hire in or hire out whatever the case may be. But the softer side of dealing with people and adapting to different situations and different agendas is probably the most important.

Where do you see healthcare developing into the future in terms of digital?

That’s an interesting question and I’m probably going to upset some people, but that’s just the way I operate. I think there’s a power imbalance, that’s probably the wrong choice of words, between clinicians and consumers. But as we progress through the digital age and consumers become more empowered, they’re no longer going to the clinician as the oracle, as the single source of truth. The power becomes more balanced away from the clinician, perhaps back towards the consumer or patients because they’ve got so much more information they can use, Doctor Google’s only one source of that, a digital health record or an EMR is another source. There are so many things that are allowing patients to be more empowered in the prevention of disease and talking to preventative health rather than attacking disease but more preventative. I think the main shift we will see in the future will be power imbalance, empowering consumers and moving to more a value-based preventative, where we don’t even think about digital health and health, it’s just health care. One of the enablers of that is digital.

What do you think is going to be the impact of wearables in the future in terms of health?

That’s very topical at the moment. Things such as wearables, software as a medical device, mobile apps, all of those things; whilst they could be very beneficial we’ve also got to tread with a level of caution. How do we treat and acknowledge the efficacy of an app, a watch, or a device? Does it do what it tells us it’s going to do? Can a clinician with a level of confidence prescribe an app? All of those things are in the realm of debate now. They’re absolutely valuable, where you can link your steps to diabetes, or your blood sugar levels. Does it have an impact? And we can see that through kind of the future of big data and AI. I think we’ve just got to tread carefully to make sure that efficacy and risk, are balanced with innovation and value.

In terms of younger people that might be looking to build a career in health or digital technology. What would be your tips to them to position themselves and develop themselves to be successful?

I think my first tip would be flexible. Don’t think you’re going to go down a very specific career path, because as I say, I started as a program and network engineer with boxes and wires, and ended up being a CDO of a health organisation, which is a far cry from where I would have thought I would be. Life changes everything and you’ve got to adapt, so be flexible in that sense.

In terms of your personal attributes, outside of flexibility I think what’s made me successful is transparency and being direct, but not too direct and also understanding that people come at things from different perspectives, and to appreciate and acknowledge that rather than having a very fixed mindset.

Do you think it’s important to find a good mentor and sticking with them for a period?

Absolutely. I’ve probably had two fantastic mentors. One of them was at Accenture, he left and he’s gone on to bigger and better things and I’ve maintained contact. It’s also the social side of your career and your profession that is really important, whether it be formal mentorship or just an informal catch up for a coffee or a beer every couple of months to use them as a sounding board.

I’ve done that over the course of that last 20 odd years with a particular gentleman and then most recently, I had a really good relationship with someone from service New South Wales. She’s been the person who sits on the right shoulder and told me to do the right or wrong, and provided a grounding for me. So absolutely, the mentors whether it be formal or informal is absolutely important.

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