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A Healthcare Innovation During a Pandemic, And Beyond Carl S. Armato's Novant Health is connecting people with providers, offering an easy way to access everything from preventative services and care to advanced treatments and clinical trials

By Shishir Jajoo

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Carl S. Armato

A global pandemic that shut down communities and overloaded hospitals might not seem like the best time to invest resources in new technologies, new points of access and other innovations.

But to Carl S. Armato, president and CEO of North Carolina-based Novant Health, nothing made more sense.

"Innovation doesn't stop during a crisis," Armato told his team. "Now is the time for us to build advanced care – and new care delivery methods – for the future." Armato and the team at Novant Health, a not-for-profit integrated network of hospitals, physician clinics and outpatient facilities, believe that healthcare is more than simply treating sickness.

It's about connecting people with providers across an entire system, offering an easy way to access everything from preventative services and care to advanced treatments and clinical trials. That's why Armato is leading the organization to innovate the way healthcare gets delivered – and by doing so, to help fulfill Novant Health's stated mission to make communities healthier, one person at a time.

A leader who knows what it's like to be a patient

Armato is motivated by his passion for health care improvement and leadership. He initially joined Novant Health in 1998 as vice-president of finance and operations for the physician divisions in Charlotte and Winston-Salem. He then served as senior vice president of materials management and logistics for Novant Health. In 2008, he was promoted to president of Novant Health markets, and in 2011, he was appointed chief operating officer. In January 2012, the board of trustees assigned him to his current position as president and CEO.

He holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and accounting, in addition to receiving a master's degree in business administration years later. But long before Armato began to build his professional resume, he understood health care from the inside – from the perspective of someone living with a chronic disease.

Diagnosed at just 18 months old with Type 1 diabetes, Armato faced discouragement from many around him as he grew. Doctors warned him that he could go blind in his 20s and potentially not live past 30. Yet the resilience and confidence his parents instilled in him won out, and over the years, he accomplished many of the milestones naysayers once predicted he couldn't achieve.

Armato didn't share widely about his condition, until he began to realize that being open would encourage others with similar struggles. He decided to go public about his diagnosis, writing about his condition in Carl's Corner, his weekly blog shared with all 39,000 Novant Health team members. He went even further, writing "A Future with Hope: An Inspiring Guide to Overcoming Diabetes," a book aimed at encouraging not only those with diabetes, but anyone aiming to live a full life while dealing with a chronic illne0ss.

Care that meets patients where they are

Armato has overseen the building of new hospitals, the opening of new clinics and the forging of new partnerships with technology companies that make it possible to deliver care outside hospital walls. He championed remote-access options, such as tele-health services that include use of TytoHome, a device through which doctors can collect patient vitals remotely.

To Armato, making health care available where patients already are is only common sense – but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also proved lifesaving.

Within weeks of the pandemic sweeping the nation, patient usage of Novant Health's video visits and TytoHome-enabled care skyrocketed. Novant Health averaged more than 10,000 virtual visits daily for weeks – the fastest acceptance of a new care model that Novant Health has ever seen. Armato's visionary embrace of virtual care served the region well throughout the COVID crisis, allowing more people to get care from the safety of their homes and freeing hospital and clinic capacity for those with more serious symptoms.

Similarly, Armato led the team to turn all kinds of spaces into vaccination sites, from a former college building to movie theater to a defunct department store to an NBA arena. Meeting patients where they are and ensuring equity in dose delivery meant opening multiple pop-up neighborhood vaccination locations weekly — sometimes launching them in as few as three days.

Armato has led Novant Health to reach more than 1.8 million users of its online patient portal, connecting people with their care teams and paving the way for the extraordinary surge in the number of patients using video visits. His work led the organization to be named one of healthcare's "Most Wired" by the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, making Novant Health one of a select group of health systems worldwide to earn this recognition for the way it uses technology to advance safety and quality.

Novant Health's embrace of digital innovation hasn't happened in a vacuum. As Armato told a reporter in 2022, the organization has created ways to listen to patients and community members – and hear what advances matter most to them.

"We ... have a robust advisory council comprised of nearly 8,000 patients and community members who regularly provide input and feedback on innovations, services and features we offer," he said. "Feedback from this council has informed everything from how we develop digital tools to reach patients to how we talk to patients who may be putting off much needed care."

Extending equity and opportunity to all

Novant Health's community engagement programs and services have been strategically focused on achieving health equity by improving health and upward mobility in all communities, a mission that took on new urgency during the pandemic.

"What was true before COVID-19 is true now: We have real health equity gaps in our communities," Armato told an executive panel earlier in the year. "That's why we've moved even more towards working to improve the health of our communities beyond the walls of our facilities."

Novant Health partnered with faith leaders and community organizations during the height of the pandemic and ultimately was able to deliver 27% of its vaccine doses to historically underserved areas. As a not-for-profit, Novant Health returns community benefit to the region it serves. In 2020, it provided more than $1.02 billion in community benefit, including services and financial assistance to patients in need.

"At Novant Health, we know that health means more than caring for the body – it means caring for the whole person, mind, body and soul," Armato told stakeholders at the start of 2021. "That's why we're addressing needs such as housing, safety and economic opportunity."

Novant Health partnered with Michael Jordan to launch Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medicine clinics in underserved neighborhoods in Charlotte. In addition to health care, the clinics connect patients with other needed resources – food, shelter, transportation, behavioral health services and more. With the 2021 purchase of New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina, Novant Health will bring that care to the coast, as well. Michael Jordan donated $10 million for two more Michael Jordan Family Medicine clinics in vulnerable Wilmington-area neighborhoods.

The innovative efforts Armato is spearheading to bring greater health equity and opportunity include those focused on the Novant Health team. Novant Health in 2021 was named one of the nation's "Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion" for the second straight year by Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). The organization recently launched an anonymous and voluntary self-identification program that allows Novant Health employees to share if they have a disability. The goal: Identify opportunities for recruitment and make sure the workplace works for all.

Through the last two years of unprecedented health care challenges, Armato has led Novant Health not only to respond creatively in crisis – but to continue evolving to meet the demands of tomorrow.

"We all know the pandemic challenges of the last two years have changed almost every aspect of our lives and the lives of the people we serve in our communities," Armato told team members in one of his first blogs of 2022. "We also know that as our environment changes, our strategies and best practices also evolve. We're continually adjusting and refining our operations to ensure that we're meeting people where they are with the care they need."

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