Meet the Executive in Residence: Eric Burd

Getting hands-on with consumers to change behaviors

Eric Burd hadn’t worked in health care prior to joining UPMC and committing to improve the industry. But he didn’t see that as a disadvantage.

Burd, who had held product-related positions at several technologies companies, said he brought a fresh set of eyes to the position of Executive in Residence at UPMC Enterprises, where he’s been part of the Consumer team since February 2016.

With experience in the e-commerce, online fintech and education technology industries – including working as senior vice president of product and design and meal kit company Plated – Burd has been leading a project at UPMC Enterprises focused on behavioral change for chronic disease patients. The project, Full Health, includes a food-as-medicine component that is going through pilot testing at UPMC.

We sat down with Burd to learn more his background, his approach to finding problems to solve and how his outsider perspective allowed him to propose a surprisingly simple solution to the challenge of chronic disease.

What brought you to UPMC Enterprises?

I was approached by a recruiter I knew who said, “I have a unique opportunity that I think you’ll find really interesting.” The pitch was, come to UPMC, which is committed to corporate innovation in health care, and get access to every facet of the health care – doctors, administration, data, the payor side. What I saw was a really robust sandbox for innovation, and it hooked me.

Before that I don’t think I ever would have considered going into health care. It seemed like too complex and thorny a space. But the chance to tackle a problem inside one of the biggest and most dynamic health systems in the world was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

How did you land on the project you’re working on now?

I did not come in with a preconceived notion of what needed fixed. I decided to adopt a “follow the money” approach by looking at patients, how they moved through our system, and where the money was going. And what I noticed with my team right away is that we have so many patients with similar chronic conditions, like hypertension and diabetes, who are in our cardiology and endocrinology programs.

And so we started spending time in these clinics with doctors and patients, and we made two important observations. The first is our clinicians are very good at delivering the best medical care for these patients, whether it’s doing procedures, prescribing medicines, ordering tests or following up. And the patients trust their doctors without question to tell them what to do medically. But our second observation was that many patients also want to know what else they can do, from a lifestyle perspective, that will help.

While we have some great programs at UPMC around health coaching and other lifestyle-based interventions, we felt patients would really benefit from a behavioral change program that went deeper into their lives by engaging them and their families in their homes.

That is a tall order. How are you making a dent?

That’s where Full Health comes in. The program takes a very consumer-oriented and hands-on approach, which includes a food-as-medicine program. But is really an entire chronic disease management platform aimed at patients. We believe there’s a huge opportunity to innovate in this space, but we also recognize that it’s a much harder problem because we’re talking about behavior change.

One of the things Full Health is focused on is we’re not trying to create new behaviors but modify existing behaviors and make it a better experience. A good example of this comes from the ride-sharing sector. People were already riding in cabs, but it was a bad experience. Companies like Uber came along and built on the existing behavior of people riding in cabs and made it a much better experience.

At Full Health, we’re taking existing lifestyle behaviors around nutrition – be it meal planning, food shopping, restaurant meal selection – and helping patients make better choices. We’re not asking patients to take on new activities.

What is the status of the Full Health pilot?

We’ve been running a Full Health pilot program at UPMC since July 2017, and we’re getting solid data. By prompting behavioral change within existing activities and wrapping that in a clinical prescription, we are seeing very high adherence, on the order of 80 percent to 90 percent, to our program. These types of results are very exciting to the Full Health team and the clinicians we are working with. Here is a great video speaking to the patient experience:

We’re also in talks with other integrated providers to pilot it outside UPMC. We’re working on apps, digital infrastructure and IoT devices for consumers. I’m really lucky to have found a great group of like-minded people who are working on my team. We have a small team and we’re all very focused on the mission – which is essential at this point because our success is going to come down to execution.

What was your first job and the most important lesson you learned from it?

This wasn’t my first job, but early in my career, when I was in the educational technology space, I was leading Product Management for the first time at a startup. We were launching new products, moving very quickly, and experiencing a lot of failures that we had to move on from right away. But while everyone talks about the value of “failing fast” they don’t mention the emotional toll that can take on teams.

My boss at the time gave me some simple advice that really helped me put it all in perspective: “In the startup world it’s never as good as it seems and it’s never as bad as it seems.” What that means to me is that you can’t get caught up too much in celebrating the wins and crying over the losses, because the emotional rollercoaster will tear you apart. You just need to keep moving and learning.