Boots CIO's Perspective on Healthy Data-Led Change


Transformation is the primary role of a CIO, no matter the sector. Rich Corbridge is unique, as a CIO who has spent the bulk of his career in the public sector and who today is CIO for Boots, one of the most well-known and respected retailers in the UK. Corbridge is passionate about how organizations adapt and the role technology plays in changing the patient or customer journey, the ethics and responsibilities towards data, and what the future of technology holds for shops and healthcare. 

"We are trying to move away from tin and wires and do business transformation, so our goals are very similar," Corbridge says of being CIO, whether in the public healthcare system or a major retailer. The CIO has been the most senior technologist in one of the UK's largest hospitals, the national healthcare department of the Republic of Ireland, public research bodies, and now Boots, part of the Walgreens Boots Alliance healthcare and retail business. Corbridge is part of a growing number of CIOs moving organizations through a constant state of change and transformation, able to adapt to developments in a market or patient demands. As a result, Corbridge doesn't see a major distinction between a retailer and healthcare provider; the role of a CIO and technology is to enable change. "Technology is there to solve problems...and we need to leave our badges at the door and work as collaborators," he says. “IT leaders are transformation experts and have been for a number of years now, we are beginning to see all types of businesses lean on IT leaders for transformation more and more, and that is a great thing!”

Retailer vs. Public Sector Health - Not so Different

"We have this assumption that the NHS has old and clunky technology, and in the private sector, everything is new," Corbridge says of the UK's health service. Corbridge is frank, no matter the funding model, organizations have a mixture of the latest technologies and legacy systems, which in turn means that the CIO role is not that different in a retailer to that in public sector health. "The differences are there, but they are almost in people's minds rather than in reality," he says of the perception. "There is a fallacy that profit making organizations transform so much faster than the public sector, maybe a little. But the reality is that in both sectors, technology is starting to grow to be recognized as a major function." 

"There has been technology debt in every role I have had, and it's one of the most limiting factors in business transformation," Corbridge says. At Boots, the CIO is embracing the cloud at the same time as dealing with legacy issues in the warehouse and distribution capabilities used by the national retailer. He says the role of the CIO is about more than recovering from technology debt, it is more and more about ensuring the organization knows how it can do more and use technology to do things better and faster and with a customer at the center.

Technology has the role of creating efficiency in both sectors, he says, in the public sector, it is about creating savings for greater optimization of the healthcare process, whilst in retail, it is about the customer experience and the myriad of services behind that customer service. "The most exciting part of my role today is the positioning between the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and the CIO to create personalized journeys and a hyper-local service in-store. This is the frontier of marketing and technology." At present, Corbridge says that there is a significant difference for online and in-store customers of Boots, but as with all CIOs in the retail sector, Boots and Corbridge are working on narrowing that gap. "Browsing is so much part of the in-store experience, and online, that is where personalization is so vital. We want to blur the lines between the two as much as possible." 

As a healthcare retailer, Boots holds a unique and trusted position amongst UK shoppers and is often relied upon for health information as well as the purchase of home necessities like toothpaste and shampoo. Moving prescription medicines online is challenging for pharmacists, but Boots has pioneered online access to pharmacists for advice, working collaboratively with world-leading health providers and charities such as Macmillan, the cancer charity. The latter allowed those with cancer to talk to pharmacists and was a hugely important service during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns that meant those with cancer had to shield at home.

"The most exciting part of my role today is the positioning between the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and the CIO to create personalized journeys and a hyper-local service in-store. This is the frontier of marketing and technology." 

Consent, Data, and Relationships

Patients and health data is an issue that quickly becomes political in the UK and its mass media. Boots has a reputation built on its ethical code, and as Corbridge reveals, the prescription information is kept intentionally separate from the retail data. As CIO, Corbridge is focused on protecting Boots' well-earned reputation for data management.  

Corbridge cites Professor Joe McDonald, former Chief Clinical Information Officer (CCIO) at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne, and Wear NHS Foundation Trust in the UK for his work on making sure that organizations ask for consent to use data. "Most patients think that a GP record is available at the Accident and Emergency Department of a hospital; in reality, the GP and the hospital are two very different organizations," Corbridge says of the complexity of the UK's health system. The CIO says that McDonald's work on making sure that the customer or patient gives consent and is clear about what they are giving consent to has been important to him as a transformation leader. "McDonald gave us the ability to describe what consent is. I still really, really believe in what he put forward. As a health and beauty retailer, we sell Viagra, so you can see really quickly where we could misstep with that information both as a retailer, and as a healthcare provider." Corbridge says that understanding why that data has been given to you is really important in shaping the relationship a retailer, healthcare provider, or technology organization has with that information. 

Working in both retail and public sector health has strengthened Corbridge's passion for technology he has a belief that it can make a real difference to organizations, customers, and patients. As a result, he is excited by the technologies that are coming down the line towards CIOs. "Health will rely on technology more and more, and we will empower patients to do more for themselves. We will also see systems provide ways for the patient to care for themselves." When asked about Artificial Intelligence (AI) he says: "AI will be in diagnostics, 70 to 80% of breast cancer screening could be done by AI. The right clinically championed AI, where the technology is not a black box, will take away the fears," he says. Adding that at the famous Moorfields hospital in London, ophthalmology surgeons have developed and used AI successfully.  

"Health will rely on technology more and more, and we will empower patients to do more for themselves. We will also see systems provide ways for the patient to care for themselves." 

Team Transformation

Corbridge is not only transforming the technology used by Boots, but also the technologists within the retailer. Boots UK has become a member of The Chartered Institute for IT (BSC), the professional body for computing.

By becoming a member of the BCS, Boots IT employees will now be able to access the institute’s entire learning portfolio via the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) IT Academy. Encouraging colleagues to upskill and re-skill using the portfolio. Boots IT has created four accessible, bite-sized themes, each with a designated ‘Champion’ who is on-hand to help guide team members through the Learning and Development (L&D) topics they would like to pursue, these are:

  1. Leadership and Fellowship
  2. Academic Learning and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I)
  3. Technology-Focused Learning and Becoming a New Leader
  4. Learning from Non-Traditional IT Role Models

As well as to introducing a multi-faceted L&D programme, IT team members will now be able to evidence their competency and skills through industry recognised standards, as well as broaden their network of IT professionals. 

The wider Boots business will also benefit from its BCS membership. Access to the learning portfolio will be given to team members in non-IT functions who enable Boots UK’s IT delivery, such as HR, Communications, Finance business partners, and digital owners, who are helping to ensure IT professionalization is as broad as possible. 

“By becoming a member of the BCS, we are investing in the future capability of our team members, and we’re equipping our organization with the skills to thrive and remain resilient in an increasingly digital world. IT has the potential to be a credible transformation agent and through our commitment, we’re championing the future of the profession and driving the professionalization of the IT industry.”

Boots IT has also set the ambitious target of having its entire leadership team ‘registered’ as BCS Fellows by September 2022 and has offered access for other WBA IT professionals across the UK and Ireland to becoming fellows too. Boots UK is proactively ensuring that its progressive DE&I agenda can also benefit from the content that BCS has to offer in this space. It’s our ambition to identify Boots IT as a credible champion of DE&I across the whole of the UK and Ireland by January 2022. 

Corbridge joined Boots in August 2020 from the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, one of the largest hospitals in the UK; before that, he spent three years with the Health Service Executive (HSE), the national health providing service of Ireland where he was awarded the O’Moore medal for technology in healthcare.

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