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Healthcare Executives Plot a Path Forward With Digital Health Transformation

CIOs and other healthcare executives gathered in Boston this week for the HealthLeaders Innovation Exchange, where they talked about moving past the pandemic and into a new era of connected health.

As the healthcare industry seeks to regain its footing after the pandemic, those in charge of innovation strategy are looking to balance lessons learned from COVID-19 with the need to be on solid financial ground.

That’s a challenging task, say health system CIOs and other executives attending the HealthLeaders Innovation Exchange this week in Boston. In many cases, health systems have adopted telehealth and digital health out of necessity, to deal with COVID-19, but they haven’t really put the work into shaping a long-term strategy.

“For the better part of the last decade we’ve been paying lip service to digital transformation,” said Saad Chaudhry, MSc, MPH, CHCIO, CDH-E, chief information officer at Annapolis, Maryland-based Luminis Health. The pandemic “was a splash of water in everyone’s faces.”

Chaudhry was one of about two-dozen healthcare executives attending this year’s Innovation Exchange, an annual event designed to bring CIOs and others together to discuss innovation strategy. Today’s event included a master class in human-centered design by Chris Waugh, vice president and chief innovation officer at San Francisco-based Sutter Health, along with round-table sessions aimed at defining innovation and discussing barriers and best practices.

In a poll conducted by HealthLeaders at the beginning of the event, about 70% said restoring their health system’s operating margins was one of the top two priorities for the coming year, while advancing digital transformation followed right behind at about 64%.

Those results reflected a desire to move past the pandemic—in fact, only 18% listed as a priority coping with the fallout from COVID-19—and to apply lessons learned in the shift to virtual care to reimagine how healthcare is delivered. And they reinforced that digital transformation is at the top of the to-do list, as innovation was only listed among the top 2 priorities by 23% and strengthening cybersecurity—always a hot topic—didn’t even get a vote.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” Chaudhry pointed out.

When asked “who champions your causes most at the organization,” 55% selected the CEO, indicating an emphasis on top-down support for innovation (10% selected the CMO or CNO, and 25% went with “someone else.” But this question and the discussion around it highlighted the fact that innovation isn’t necessarily channeled through one C-suite position or based in one department, and can and should be found in all areas and levels of the healthcare system.

James McElligott, MD, MSCR, executive medical director of telehealth and an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Children’s Hospital in Charleston, echoed several comments in pointing out that innovation is best supported when many departments (and department heads) share in the process, and can be fostered as easily by one doctor with a unique idea or strategy as the head of a hospital.

That can also be a hindrance. When asked “who blocks your causes most at the organization,” 25% selected the CFO, highlighting the challenge that innovation faces in securing financial backing, and 55% selected someone else, over the CEO (10%), the CMO (5%), and the CNO (5%).

This, and the discussion that followed, indicates innovative project face a wide array of challenges, including politics. A new technology or program might look great in a pilot, but it might run aground when several departments seek to take control and turn it into a political issue, or it might falter because no one wants to champion the project.

Bradley Crotty, MD, MPH, vice president and chief digital engagement officer at the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin Health Network, as well as chief medical officer and chief product officer at Inception Health and an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, pointed out that the pandemic did give health systems a process that everyone followed to “get things done.” That attention to one common goal worked, he noted, and showed healthcare organizations how to cut through the barriers to achieve a goal.

That should be a model for innovation, he and other said.

Finally, executives were asked where their organization stands in its digital journey. The results, as with the healthcare industry, were across the board. Some 44% were building out the technology and a process roadmap, while 33% were in the execution stage, 11% were conducting a needs assessment, almost 6% were either ensuring ongoing services and support or at the baseline.

The results speak to the various stages of digital health transformation, and point to the fact that each health system will travel its own path. But that doesn’t mean they can’t share advice on how to make that trip.

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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