How IT has transformed the health and retail sectors

6 Aug 2021

Michelle Kearns. Image: Boots Ireland

Boots Ireland’s new head of IT discusses how the digital health and retail sectors have transformed as a result of Covid-19.

Michelle Kearns was appointed the head of IT for pharmacy and retail chain Boots Ireland earlier this year.

She joined the company after almost 17 years working for a GP cooperative providing healthcare services throughout Ireland, most recently as the chief information officer.

In 2016, Kearns founded One HealthTech Ireland, a network that supports and promotes openness, inclusion, kindness and diversity in health innovation. She also spent time as an adviser to the World Health Organization.

‘Healthcare had to change, clinicians had to change, patients had to change’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

I am responsible for the IT functions of Boots Ireland, a multifaceted role that includes internal systems and, the latter of which has grown exponentially in users since the onset of Covid-19.

The continued transformation and evolution of Boots starts with digital as a foundation to support customers, whether through a brilliant click-to-bricks experience, new ways of accessing health and wellness services, or increasing levels of assurance around home deliveries.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

Martech [marketing technology] and mass personalisation is one of the most exciting aspects in retail right now – how do we ensure that we offer a customer journey that is equal in customer focus regardless of being online, in our app, or in our store? The technology we will deliver across Ireland in the next 12 months will help us make that giant leap to enable this.

Martech is a collaboration between marketing, traditional IT and digital, and releases us to do things that customers want from retail but also enables us to consider how they could be reused in the healthcare system to deliver excellent service to each and every one of our pharmacy patients.

The first stages of the new basket and checkout have been delivered and will see Boots able to offer the same basket and checkout process wherever you are in the Boots ecosystem, online and physically.

The journey to cloud is almost complete for retail. There are many more systems moving over to cloud, which will enable my team to respond much more quickly to the needs of Boots at a technology level.

Data and analytics is a massive aspect for us. We need to concentrate on making the most of our data but being very clear and working with customers to understand and make sure they are happy with what we do with their data.

How big is your team?

I joined a team of more than 2,000 colleagues across the company’s network of 90 stores and head office in Ireland. The wider team though is 55,000 people all working to delight the customer and make our team members smile, which sounds cheesy, but it really does permeate throughout Boots.

We are working with a number of excellent teams where specific aspects of work has been outsourced to Tata Consultancy Services, Cognizant, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe and many others.

I am new to the team, but working with the Irish team and all our partners has been an amazing experience. People are willing to go the extra mile, support wherever possible and really strive to make the best decisions for Boots customers and colleagues alike.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

IT people are transformation people. Everything we do is about transforming the business, whether it’s focused on team members or customers. I recently chaired a session for the International Foundation for Integrated Care, which was about how digital solutions have changed the patient-clinician relationship and the dynamic of healthcare in such a short space of time since Covid-19.

There are so many lessons to learn from what has happened here and the impact it has had for patients. Years of planning for digital solutions which were ‘nice to have but maybe not necessary’ were catapulted into the category of ‘we need them yesterday’.

Healthcare had to change, clinicians had to change, patients had to change. What did we learn from all of this? There are a number of lessons, I think.

For me what stands out most is procrastinating is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to get it done. Also, digital poverty and inequalities are very real and present. We need to think how we can support all our customers for retail, pharmacy and healthcare.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

This is an interesting question. There are some amazing tech trends out there, for example, data and analytics, martech and its applicability beyond retail, digital health and all its permutations, robotics and drone delivery.

But just to concentrate on data and analytics as a start, we have to be clear that we need good data to make good decisions. A lot of data does not necessarily mean a lot of good or sensible data. In the world of AI and machine learning, you can easily get carried away.

Tech trends cross all sectors – you have to think about how something from another sector may benefit something you are trying to achieve.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

Communications and preparedness are essential. We know [incidents] will happen, what we need is the best protection for when it does to enable a quick recovery and protect the best we can.

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