Ascension’s Unconventional Approach to Healthtech

There’s no shortage of healthtech companies that would love to call Ascension a client, but they have steep competition: the company’s own in-house development shop, the Digital Studio.

Written by Michael Hines
Published on May. 15, 2020
Ascension’s Unconventional Approach to Healthtech
An Ascension hospital in Wisconsin

Ascension doesn’t have time to wait for healthtech startups to build the technology its doctors and nurses need.

The nonprofit healthcare organization operates the second-largest health system in the country, with 2,600 care sites (including 151 hospitals) in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Understanding how all of these care sites interact and the pain points of Ascension’s thousands of doctors and nurses would be an immense challenge for even the most agile startup.

Instead of spending time shopping for solutions and helping startups better understand its health system, Ascension decided to cut out the middleman and launch its own in-house development shop, the Digital Studio.

According to Ascension, the Digital Studio is designed to operate like a startup, with cross-functional teams located in St. Louis, Austin and Chicago building products in two-week sprints. But unlike a startup, the Digital Studio team doesn’t have to worry about running out of funding, finding product-market fit or getting their technology into the hands of doctors and nurses.

We exist to change the way healthcare is delivered.”

Caleb Dixon has worked in healthcare for more than 20 years, the last four of which have been spent with Ascension. Dixon, the Digital Studio’s operations lead, told Built In in an interview that Ascension’s approach to technology is uncommon in its industry. 

“We exist to change the way healthcare is delivered,” said Dixon.

Having an in-house development team dedicated to building new technology enables Ascension to address the pain points of its medical staff quickly and more directly. This setup, Dixon said, gives technologists the ability to do work that makes an impact on the healthcare industry.

“If you want the products you create and support to make a real impact in people’s lives, this is the place to be,” said Dixon.

Dixon recently sat down with Built In to discuss the Digital Studio in more depth, including how the team responded to COVID-19, how Ascension’s mission impacts their work and what excites him most about the future. Here are his thoughts on those subjects and more:


Caleb Dixon
Digital Studio Operations Lead

On the Digital Studio’s response to COVID-19:

We utilize agile methodologies to research, prototype, build and release products, which allowed us to quickly adapt to COVID-19 and develop solutions that made an immediate impact on our caregivers. We were able to quickly deploy a digital associate health screening tool used by all caregivers in our facilities. We then iterated quickly again and within another sprint fully integrated a remote monitoring system for associates that reported symptoms. The responsiveness of the team — over 100 folks from across the organization were involved in these sprints — was amazing to see.


The benefits of building technology at a company with resources and reach:

We want our culture to be our calling card and put effort into making sure our associates have the freedom to express themselves and let their unique talents shine. It’s great for our team to know that some of the barriers many startups face, like low distribution or utilization due to a small customer base, have been removed. Our customer base is massive and our products are deployed at scale and make an immediate impact on thousands of lives, which has become even more apparent during the recent pandemic.

Our customer base is massive and our products are deployed at scale and make an immediate impact on thousands of lives.”

The impact on the broader healthcare industry:

We want to make an impact within Ascension first and have proven that with the proper resourcing, focus and collaboration we can do so. We’ve brought design, technology, data science, care delivery, patient engagement and our mission together under one roof and are excited to see just what we can accomplish. The Digital Studio is coming up on its first birthday, and we are already seeing ways to share our findings and help more people.


One project the team recently released — and looking to the future:

We have a brand new product called Screen & Go. We took the bones of our internal associate screening tool and made it publicly available for employers to ensure the safety of their associates as they come to work and manage symptomatic ones. The response has been great and we are excited to help serve the public in this way.

The idea of “more” excites me. There is so much more we can do at the Studio. We can use data-driven insights more. We can help more patients by engaging with them when, where and how they want to engage with us. We can be more efficient and safe in our care delivery. We can take better care of our frontline caregivers and physicians. We can use the amazing creative talents of our team more effectively. We can create more impactful products. We can help more vulnerable populations.”


How Ascension’s mission guides the Digital Studio team:

Our mission, providing care to the underserved, is in front of everything we do and doesn’t stop with the Studio. The products we build allow our caregivers to continue our mission, and Ascension has also given away apps, like our AI-powered symptom checker tool, for free and offered free and discounted virtual care. Many team members have stated our mission is the number one reason they chose us.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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