It’s natural to wonder whether people who achieve early, breakaway career success are geniuses, or just in the right place at the right time. In the case of Saurabha Bhatnagar (CS ’02), who built twin areas of expertise in health care and software before those sectors began to merge, it’s a bit of both.
“I just loved two things, and then a multibillion dollar industry was created around my two loves,” Bhatnagar says.
Bhatnagar is the chief health officer and general manager of Commure, a high-flying, San Francisco-based health tech startup that raised more than $500 million in investment capital and is backed by a leading health care venture firm General Catalyst. That’s just his latest gig: already, Bhatnagar also has overseen thousands of employees and billion-dollar budgets at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and also worked as chief medical officer and head of digital and technology at UnitedHealth Group, the fifth-largest company in America, according to the latest Fortune 500 rankings. Additionally, he has spent the last nine years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, where he serves as faculty director of global executive education.
“Part of why it’s so complex to navigate our antiquated health care systems is that there is no operating system-type model for health care." — Saurabha Bhatnagar
Bhatnagar chose his career path while he was still a high schooler in suburban Detroit, not because he was eyeing the size of the emerging health tech market, or because he aspired to a spot in the C-suite. Instead, he discovered a passion for coding while learning on his family’s computer, and also loved volunteering at the urban hospital where his mom worked as a medical biller. Bhatnagar cleaned bedpans, made beds, and delivered lunches, connecting with what he calls “the human side of health care.”
He began searching for ways to combine his interests in coding and medicine as a career, and discovered an Illinois Tech program that would allow him to study computer science as an undergraduate before proceeding directly to Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University. While on Illinois Tech’s campus, Bhatnagar not only honed his coding abilities, but also learned two other skills that have served him well in the years since: human-centered design, and how to collaborate across disciplines. He credits Illinois Tech’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program, where he worked on a project involving a United Nations war crimes tribunal, for showing him the value of multidisciplinary teams.
“Most interesting work [in health care] happens in a very interdisciplinary fashion, where you’re working across designers, clinicians, and care managers, and also across the legal side and the technology side,” Bhatnagar says. “That IPRO was so critical for me because it developed my mindset to just naturally be oriented that way.”
In the years since, that approach has emerged as one of Bhatnagar’s defining strengths.
“He’s very flexible and nimble and open to taking on new roles and learning. He’ll say, ‘I may not know exactly how to do this, but I will work with this other team to figure it out and build the things that we need,’” says Ashwini Zenooz, Commure’s CEO.
At Commure, Bhatnagar and Zenooz are working together to create what they call an operating system for health care: a platform that will facilitate interoperability and workflows among different health tech applications and software systems, including some cumbersome legacy tech that has proven challenging to integrate for many health systems. It’s a substantial challenge, which is part of what attracted Bhatnagar to the company.
“We’re solving a core technology problem around access that I’ve been trying to work on at every stage of my career—and now here is a company that was created specifically around that,” Bhatnagar says. “Part of why it’s so complex to navigate our antiquated health care systems is that there is no operating system-type model for health care. We’re working to create one, and that’s super exciting, even though it’s a very technically challenging problem. There were all the right puzzle pieces to do something, and now we get to do the fun part of creating, building, and executing the solution.”
One of the key challenges that Commure must overcome is to meet the different needs of several different categories of users, including patients, clinicians, and hospital and payor administrators. That’s where Bhatnagar’s background in design comes in handy, because he excels at ensuring that Commure keeps the needs of all those stakeholders in mind while devising its solution.
“He’s empathetic to the needs of the clinicians and care team members who are going to be using [Commure’s product], but is also able to push back and say, ‘We need to think about patients first,’” says Zenooz. “And he’s able to do that in a collaborative way that leads to agreement because he isn’t political or bureaucratic—he actually just wants to bring people together so they create the best experience for our users.”
In addition to his work at Commure, Bhatnagar remains active at Harvard, where he teaches in the executive education program, including a new master’s-level course for global health care leaders who are examining the intersection of quality, patient safety, and technology in health care operations. Bhatnagar also still sometimes volunteers as a doctor in Boston-area clinics, continuing the tradition of health care service that began as a teen in suburban Detroit.
“I still love the things that I loved back then, like delivering food trays, spending time with patients and family members, and tinkering with technology,” says Bhatnagar. “It’s also important to me to carve out enough time to make sure I’m close to where health care is actually happening, which is at the bedside.”