Personal experiences often lead to compelling innovations. For Susanne Fortunato, an undiagnosed teenage illness launched her on a career path, and ultimately to founding her own health tech company. Along the way, she learned a lot about the state of technology in healthcare today and the gaps that have yet to be filled.
In 2004, President George W. Bush launched an effort to spur the development of health information technology, including the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs). Over the intervening years, that push has expanded with regulations requiring all healthcare providers in the U.S. to use EHRs for scheduling, documenting, and treating patients.
The goals behind this effort are laudable – higher patient engagement, a streamlined healthcare experience, cost savings, and improved care outcomes. The results have largely been positive. Multiple care providers can access a shared patient’s charts for more coordinated care, pharmacies receive electronic prescription orders, and approved family members or caretakers can access patient portals to assist loved ones.
But these systems also come with downsides and areas of murky coverage. Some physicians and staff complain of the stress and inconvenience these obligatory systems can place on teams. Customization and multiple providers across EHRs mean that not all health systems or providers can access records seamlessly, leading to breakdowns in treatment or communication. And patients can be confused by protocols, information, and who has access to their sensitive information.
Unfortunately, it was this latter reality in which Fortunato found herself. Faced with confusing information, overlapping doctors, and a mysterious illness, she suffered through a three-year odyssey seeking help. She credits a decidedly old-school approach to ultimately solving her health puzzle.
When her treating physicians and their technology systems proved insufficient, Fortunato created a 3-inch binder filled with all her medical information and records that she lugged to every appointment. She then digitized this information and built spreadsheets to analyze the information and results. This new approach and information allowed her new doctor to see everything at a glance. Within a couple of weeks, she was diagnosed with a rare chronic illness, was treated, and began to feel better.
By the time she graduated college, this experience had given Fortunato another education, a deep insight into how the healthcare industry operated and how efficient, personalized access to information could change someone’s life. She resolved to make a difference so that others did not have to build their own binders. After graduation, she took a job with Epic, one of the primary EHR companies serving many of the hospitals and health systems in the United States.
Fortunato described hospital software to me by comparing it to a house. Before you can live in it comfortably, she says you need to paint the walls and pick the furniture so that the house and its functionality are tailored to the person living in it. Sometimes that might require knocking down a wall or two or building an addition on the back.
This was the crux of her first job at Epic – performing that software setup for hospital clients. Fortunato spoke with physicians, nurses, and administrators to understand their unique needs, then managed a team that customized the software to fit those parameters. At Epic, she refined her software engineering skills using modern languages and techniques as part of her ongoing deep dive into the industry.
Fortunato eventually left to found Wingspan Health as the digital replacement for the 3-inch binder. She and her team built a platform that follows a patient along their healthcare journey, regardless of changing insurance, hometown, jobs, or doctors to always provide a current and helpful at-a-glance overview. Importantly, she designed the system so that the data is clearly owned by the patient, and so that it delivers clarity and peace of mind by merging everything into one easy-to-use dashboard.
Looking back, she sees her path to Wingspan as useful for other women looking to turn their personal experiences or passion into a business.
She characterizes herself as someone that fell out of the software engineering pipeline. Frustrated by high school classes in a windowless room dominated by male students, she switched her elective to photography and went on to study urban planning and chemistry in college. No tech, no healthcare.
But she always knew she was going to pursue this arc given her personal health situation. So, she dove back into coding while at Epic, relearning key elements and refining her hobby skills with the latest techniques and language.
Fortunato says that approach to coding and computer science might work for other women. She believes it’s more important to understand the process of software development and how decisions are made or how things get built. That helps would-be programmers understand why something that appears so simple in its end-stage takes so long and is so complicated to build.
Having the soft skills and communications skills also helps when dealing with engineers. It enables you to hold a positive, respectful conversation about trade-offs and design challenges. She credits her experience on both sides of that discussion as being critical to her building Wingspan.
Fortunato also encourages young women pursuing computer science degrees and programs to consider engineering over product management. She wants them to know that being a professional software engineer does not sentence you to a cubicle and computer screen alone all day.
Instead, it’s an intensely creative and collaborative work experience that is centered more around effective communication than algorithms. For those that decide to change their career, it’s easier to move into product management from engineering, versus the opposite. And perhaps most importantly, software engineers typically get paid more than product managers!
At the end of the day, Fortunato says that either career is for someone who likes solving problems and building things. And doing so in the healthcare space as part of a personal mission makes it especially rewarding. For her part, she is resolved to continue breaking down the industry’s huge, complicated systems into more accessible, manageable ones.