Inlightened’s Shelli Pavone on Impacting Health Care Through Diversity and Inclusion

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds, raised funding, and are now leading successful companies.

Shelli Pavone is CEO and co-founder of Inlightened. Having spent her entire career focused on health care, she understands the unique challenges that come with disrupting an incredibly complex market. 

In this Q&A, Pavone shares why she founded Inlightened, why the traditional “move fast and break things” startup approach doesn’t work in health care, and how a true commitment to diversity and inclusion in health care organizations is the only way to address the diverse needs of the patients they serve.


Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding: What led you to start this business?

There is consistent, recurrent feedback that health care innovations don’t address the needs of their target market and miss the mark in terms of improving patient care. We created Inlightened to bridge the knowledge gap that contributes to these issues. Our goal is to eliminate obstacles and empower the health care community to design solutions that will actually succeed in making an impact.

My co-founder, Michelle Higginson, and I have spent most of our careers working in health care and startups. As part of that work, we had a front-row seat to many of the industry’s successes and failures. One thread that wove its way through all of them: Subject matter expertise and engagement. Successful innovations–those that went on to make a difference in care delivery or outcomes, for example–sought and incorporated a wealth of clinical expertise. On the other hand, those innovations that didn’t make it could always attribute their failure, at least in part, to lack of knowledge, experience and expertise of the health care stakeholders that matter most to that particular solution. 

Entrepreneurs tend to enter health care for the upside and the mission, and rightfully so. But you can’t disrupt a complex bureaucratic system without a working knowledge of it. Innovators will typically consult one or two clinicians–sourced via their own networks–in early stages to validate their ideas. Then, they go full steam ahead, without proper testing. Moving fast and breaking things isn’t the approach that works in health care. 

Beyond the importance of engaging expert insights early and often, is the crucial role of diverse perspectives. We always say, “If you’ve talked to one doctor, you’ve talked to one doctor. If you’ve seen one hospital, you’ve seen one hospital.” Innovators need to do more digging and due diligence, and speak to a large number of individuals, in order to truly provide valuable solutions.

Organizations of all stages and sizes struggle with how to source quality health care expertise. For example, a team might need clinicians to vet an idea, and a different set of experts that can help design and execute a go-to-market plan. A variety of experts who have experience across different geographies and practice settings, and are treating diverse patient populations, are essential to driving a bigger and more effective impact, across every stage of innovation.


Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the launch of Inlightened?

What an interesting time to launch a new company. As we approached our launch date, we had internal discussions about whether or not to push it back. The feedback from early customers and the industry provided the answer: We needed to forge ahead as planned. We even had the opportunity to service some of our earliest clients manually, prior to the launch of our web-based platform.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed significant gaps in U.S. health care, demanding bold innovators to design solutions to address them. It also caused many companies to revisit models or pivot products, which increased demand for expertise.

For the first time, we are seeing and hearing stories about disparities in access to health care, inequalities in care delivery, and the toll of failed innovations on our frontline workers. As a result of the pandemic–and the opportunities it has revealed–innovators are recognizing the need to have clinical expertise along the innovation journey to ensure diversity of thought, inclusion and the right prioritization of solutions.  


Q: What problem does your company solve? What are some of the most meaningful impacts your company has had to date? 

It’s not easy to change a process that’s embedded in the health care “system,” which can be seen in the old-school way that innovators work with subject matter experts. For example, a healthcare startup in need of clinical expertise might reach out to its community of investors, colleagues and mentors to source a couple of specialists. No commitment to diversity of thought, experience, or specialty.

But what makes health care so incredibly difficult is its diversity—of patients, conditions, settings (both geographic and urban vs. rural) and specialties. So, when an innovator comes along and wants to develop a solution to a problem, and seeks input from one or two doctors, which is quite typical of the process, that innovation is still very likely to miss the mark, and subsequently fail–at a rate as high as 96 percent.

We seek to disrupt the process responsibly. We are fixing an inherently broken process with unprecedented quality, transparency and focus, enabling health care innovators to efficiently and easily access vetted expertise that can support successful innovation.


Q: How do you define health care innovation?

I like the way the EMJ defines it: “Simply put, the ultimate goal of health innovation is to improve our ability to meet public and personal healthcare needs and demands by optimising the performance of the health system. In theory, innovations in healthcare should yield scalable solutions and improvements in health policies, systems, products, technologies, services, and delivery methods, in order to improve treatment, diagnosis, education, outreach, prevention, research quality and delivery, and access to healthcare.”


Q: How or where are we going wrong when it comes to ensuring diversity in health care innovation?

As female founders in health tech, we know how homogenous the field can be. We also know that while health care companies and experts are aligned in wanting to advance innovation, the current state of expert networks, market research firms, and healthcare consultancies are not built to serve them. Too often, value is provided through gatekeeping, and client needs are assumed and reactively served. 

If the innovators–those designing solutions to improve things like policies, systems and delivery methods–are limited to sourcing experts from their own networks, we are missing valuable outside opinions, insights and expertise. Without these external perspectives, diversity in health care innovation is not possible, and nobody wins.


Q: What can we achieve if we innovate with a focus on diversity and inclusion?

For one, a more equitable society where health care delivers improved quality outcomes, and decreased morbidity and mortality. We can zero in on and address the real drivers of poorer health outcomes, like social determinants of health. 

Dr. Robert Fields, Inlightened expert and senior vice president and chief medical officer of population health at Mount Sinai Health System, recently wrote: “As long as we — as a nation and health system — agree that the health of all citizens is a priority, we can use what we’ve learned from this time in history to begin to innovate with the goal of quality healthcare for every American.”  

In addition, we will have more satisfied patients, employees and stakeholders across every stage of care.

Beyond health outcomes and patient satisfaction, there will be intangible improvements that are driven by innovating with empathy. Another Inlightened expert, Dr. Deborah Vinton, medical director of the  emergency department at UVA Health reminds us: “[O]ne of the biggest measures of success will be whether innovation not only supports or enables improved delivery of care, but if it does so in a way that enhances physician and patient relationships while boosting safety and efficiency of care delivery.” 


Q: What has you optimistic about the future of healthcare?

I continue to be amazed by the depth and breadth of expertise within our network. The combined experience they bring to the health care system–and the passion with which they live their calling–leaves me inspired and optimistic about what can be achieved by collaborating and supporting each other. 

Our invitation-only network of carefully vetted experts continues to grow, which highlights the dedication to driving change across the industry. While health care can appear to move slower than other industries, it is made up of people who continuously push for better outcomes, engagement, access and equality. It is because of them that we will continue to see progress.


Q: Are there any examples of designing for health care innovation with diversity in mind that you admire or aspire to?

Dr. Fields has outlined how we can address and begin to fix the system through a combination of innovation, partnerships and community engagement. First, he says, we need to prioritize things like remote monitoring that are open to everyone, chronic disease management that doesn’t center around face-to-face care, and patient engagement that mirrors consumer experiences. We need to ensure every patient–regardless of their location or socio-economic status–has access to virtual visits, and that those visits provide equal or better quality of care than in-person ones.

Second, health systems need to develop formal and lasting partnerships with nonprofit organizations. Rather than trying to design and manage a new solution on their own, health systems can look to those already doing the critical work, and design ways to work together to combat the SDOHs that impact whether a person will have positive outcomes or not.

And third, we need to design and execute cohesive strategies for community engagement. That starts by looking to those who already have the attention of at-risk communities, and work with them to amplify, educate and, ultimately, close the gaps.


Q: Is the healthcare industry late to the table when it comes to innovation with a focus on diversity and inclusion? 

I think we, as a society, are late to the table when it comes to innovating for diversity and inclusion. An intentional focus on these things is essential to the evolution of every industry, not just health care. 

Because of the moment we’re in as a result of COVID-19, we have a unique opportunity in health care to drive improvements for all. Positive change is a result of continuous, concerted efforts to foster equity and inclusion. This is especially true in health care, where disparities in care and social determinants of health not only contribute to, but exacerbate, problems. We won’t close the gaps immediately, but we can begin to design the pieces needed to start building the bridges. 


Q: What do you look forward to most as you continue to build the company?

I look forward to seeing how client organizations evolve based on the knowledge they obtain through our network of experts. There are a lot of opportunities out there to improve access to and delivery of health care, and I believe the innovators and experts we work with will lead the charge. I get excited for the day when we can look back and feel that wave of satisfaction that comes when you know you brought the right people together to drive real change in the world. 

  • Originally published November 23, 2020