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Managing

Faye Sahai: on the cutting edge at Kaiser Permanente

Guided by her “head and heart,” this experienced leader found a home in healthcare, where she’s helping make innovations into realities


Faye Sahai is the daughter of two physicians who each had their own practices, so she was exposed to healthcare very early. Today, she helps bring the newest healthcare technologies to light as vice president of innovation and advanced technology for Kaiser Permanente (KP, Oakland, CA).

“My focus is the transformation of healthcare: identifying, researching, testing, experimenting, prototyping and promoting innovation to change healthcare for the benefit of our members and employees.”

Kaiser Permanente provides healthcare services to 9.3 million members in seven states and the District of Columbia. The nonprofit is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health.

How an idea comes to life at KP
“I’m working with an amazing cross-functional team of about twenty-five people that includes clinicians, designers, technologists, developers, user experience professionals and solutions consultants. I also work with a matrix of what we call innovation hunters, designated by their executives to collaborate with me about what’s happening in their areas and what their innovation needs are. We have these in each of our seven national regions as well as in our major lines of business.”

Sahai herself oversees the board of the company’s internal innovation fund for technology, which provides funding for innovative technology projects within KP.

“For example,” she explains, “if we want to explore robotics, we’ll talk across industries, vendors, partners and technologies to see how they’re using robotic technologies. Then, we’ll bring our experts in to see how we can explore their uses and develop prototypes.

“Some of the robotics we’ve introduced and implemented are TUG robots from Aethon. The robots can move five hundred pounds of materials, whether it’s linens, food, trash or anything. That is literally saving the backs of our employees.”

She explains that TUG robots incorporate computer-assisted design drawings of all KP facilities and know how to navigate. “They also have sensors so they are very polite. If you are in a robot’s way, it will say, ‘Please excuse me’ or pause and go around you.”

Sahai’s group is looking at the future, at products and concepts two to five years out. She also looks at the healthcare implications of products currently on the market that one might not readily associate with KP’s focus. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the automotive industry about smart cars and sensors and what they can do with biomonitoring of drivers,” she says. “They’ll know your heart rate, they’ll know if you’re sleepy, or if you’re about to have a cardiac event.

“We work side-by-side with doctors, clinicians, pharmacists, and health plans brainstorming ideas to say, ‘Will this work? How does it integrate with KP? Is it a value to our members?’ We need to be open to ideas from everyone.”

Integrating ideas across industries
Sahai has worked in financial institutions, as well as retail, management consulting, and high-tech corporations. She’s worked across industries and across functions. “I have a non-traditional background,” admits Sahai. “I think that’s helped me in healthcare. There are similarities, for example, between the financial industry and healthcare,” she notes.

“Retail branch banking is where we’re at now for hospital clinics. Seeing healthcare go to kiosks in pharmacies is like banks putting in ATMs. Now banks are going to online banking, so what does that look like for healthcare? We want to engage in the total health of our members.

“We’ve rolled out teleconsulting where you don’t have to go to the doctor’s office; they can come to you electronically. Any of our nine million patients can e-mail their doctor, send a photograph, etc. They know the patient, they know the history, what they are allergic to and so forth, so they can often make an evaluation.”

A future driven by a love of culture
Sahai describes herself as “mostly Thai with a bit of Chinese.” She was born in Kentucky and lived in different parts of the United States and Canada before her family settled in California.

She holds a BA in economics and psychology from Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA). “Early on, I wanted to do international business, but I didn’t know quite what it was,” she says. “I was exposed to many different cultures and I had a real appreciation of their value. When I got to Claremont McKenna, my major in economics appealed to my mind, but my minor in psychology appealed to my heart, empathizing with people and understanding them.”

After she graduated in 1990, Sahai wanted to try something different. First Deposit Corporation, now Providian Financial, recruited her at an on-campus career fair, and Sahai started her first job working for the company in San Francisco as a consultant and financial analyst. Other analytical and consulting roles followed. She joined Gateway Pacific Foundation (Orange County, CA) in 1992 and in 1995, went to Deloitte Consulting where she was a manager and senior consultant working in healthcare, high-tech, financial institutions and energy. Also in 1995, Sahai earned her MBA from UCLA.

After five years, she moved to Charles Schwab and then healthcare consulting company H&A; Consulting. She was recruited to Blue Cross of California in 2002 as senior director of healthcare services and director of business performance management. “It was a great opportunity to work with their chief operating officer,” Sahai enthuses. “That was when I finally realized that healthcare is where I want to be.

“Both Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente are nonprofit, so they are mission-driven. Again, that appealed to my heart and the work appealed to my mind.”

Opportunity to make a bigger difference
Sahai came to Kaiser Permanente in 2006. “A headhunter approached me with an opportunity at KP to start my own internal consulting department from the ground up. Blue Cross was limited to California, but KP was national in scope. It was a company I had always admired.”

Her first title was executive director of business readiness. Later, executive oversight was added to her title and responsibilities. “A group of us looked at how the business needed to be transformed. The oversight group was working with our chief information officer on strategic planning. I shifted into innovation in 2010.”

Sharing her expertise
Sahai serves as executive sponsor of Kaiser Permanente’s Women in Technology, a group she co-founded that now has more than 1,700 members across the organization. She is on the steering committee for Garfield Innovation Center Governance, and is an advisor to the Kaiser Permanente Women Embracing Life and Leadership, a second KP women’s resource group. The women’s groups combined have more than 3,000 members across Kaiser Permanente.

Outside the company, she serves on the board of directors for Berger Research Institute and on the alumni board for Claremont McKenna College.

“I love what I’m doing,” Sahai says. “I think it’s continuing to make a difference. This is an interesting and critical time in healthcare.”

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