CEOs: Digital strategies come up short
Senior healthcare leaders say IT can help transform healthcare, but they acknowledge that their organization’s strategies need more work.
This article is part of a CEO leadership series
CEOs acknowledge that information technology will play a vital role in transforming healthcare. But few say that their organization has created a digital strategy that looks far enough into the future, according to a global survey of 200 leaders of midsize and large healthcare provider organizations.
Many CEOs also view the challenges in adapting to new technologies as a potential barrier to transformation, according to the recently released KPMG survey report: 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse.
The survey shows that top executives see many ways that technology can help address key issues, including improving workforce retention, enhancing customer service, offering patient-centric care, shifting to delivering more care outside the hospital and dealing with new payment models.
“The CEOs are realizing the importance of technology. The ones that value technology will do better. The ones that keep it in the back office will not do as well,” says David Chou, a long-time CIO in the healthcare industry and founder of davidchou.health.
CEOs need to be tech-savvy
The KPMG report notes that the skills healthcare CEOs need are evolving and now include being more tech savvy.
“That doesn’t mean a CEO needs to be a coder, but the CEO needs to bring a high level of appreciation of technology,” says Edmund Sabanegh, M.D., president and CEO of the Guthrie Clinic, a health system based in Sayre, Pa.
Some healthcare providers are taking the extra step of creating the position of chief digital transformation officer, or CDTO.
“It’s part of culture change. Other industries have been adding CDTOs. In health, the early adopters have been acting on this.”
Dr David Cole, president, MUSC
For example, MUSC Health, a system based in Charleston, S.C., is hiring a CDTO who will have direct accountability to senior leadership and help accelerate the organization’s digital technology strategy, says David Cole, president.
Although some healthcare CIOs are retooling themselves into CDTOs, many of those being hired for this new position are coming from other industries that have already embraced digital transformation, says Ed Marx, CEO at the Dallas-based healthcare consulting firm Divurgent.
Cole says MUSC Health is “elevating the position” of CIO. “It’s part of culture change. Other industries, such as the airlines, have been adding CDTOs. In health, the early adopters have been acting on this in the last year or two.”
Innovative CEOs are increasingly relying on a wide range of technologies, including artificial intelligence and cloud computing, and putting big data to use, says Patrick Cawley, M.D., CEO of MUSC Health. IT is “completely transforming this industry. …. And you can’t go back,” he says.
“Data and analytics will be essential to a CEO,” adds Chuck Appleby, editor-in-chief at the Scottsdale Institute, a not-for-profit membership organization that convenes discussions on key issues, including healthcare IT. “Dashboards will be de rigueur in CEO offices to monitor performance and perform predictive analytics.”
CEOs have major concerns about workforce retention, and they see technology as playing a role in addressing the issue, the survey confirms.
Two-thirds of all survey respondents globally say their organization needs to devote more attention to talent and resources.
Some 75 percent of U.S. respondents reported being concerned about their ability to support workforce wellness. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to workforce burnout and staff shortages.
Technology to support staffing
“I’d put workforce at the top of the list of what keeps CEOs up at night,” Appleby says. “CEOs are concerned about the resilience of the workforce, the scarcity and the terrible costs of traveling nurses. So there’s a sense that now is the moment you have to digitally transform care delivery.”
Some healthcare organizations are adopting technology to ease the burden on staff members.
For example, many are updating their electronic health record systems to improve workflow and productivity, says Marx of Divurgent.
A growing number of organizations are also adding new technology, such as biometrics, to make it easier for clinicians to sign into the EHR system, Marx says. And many are using technology to address staff shortages, such as by establishing command centers where one nurse can remotely monitor more patients, he adds.
“No one can find people to work, so we use more technology to do things,” says Cliff Deveny, M.D., president and CEO of Summa Health, a large integrated delivery system in Ohio.
Improving customers’ experience
Another top priority for CEOs is improving the patient experience. Some 95 percent of the U.S. respondents to the KPMG survey stated that they are “highly” or “extensively” focusing on the customer experience. And technology can help to enhance patients’ interactions with the healthcare organization.
Technology to meet consumer demands
“Hospitals are looking to give to patients things in an automated way to improve their lives,” says Taylor Davis, president of KLAS, a Salt Lake City-based consultancy. “A big area is the digital front door. Before COVID, the digital experience was important. Today it’s exponentially more important. A lot of patients won’t engage otherwise.”
He adds: “If you’re not using online scheduling through a patient portal, you’re stuck in the past. It’s shocking that so many hospitals are not doing it.”
IT also is playing an important role in improving the quality of care provided, says Guthrie Clinic's Sabanegh.
For example, more hospitals are using predictive analytics to identify patients at risk of pressure sores and other ailments so staff can step in before a problem occurs, the CEO points out.
Artificial intelligence can also alert clinicians as to which patients would be good candidates for certain medications, such as monoclonal antibodies for COVID treatment, Sabenegh adds.
But implementing new technology can prove challenging, says Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health in New Orleans. For example, some insurers may resist paying for using new technologies to treat patients, he says.
Providing care outside the hospital
Visionary CEOs are now tackling the issue of delivering care in new ways. Seventy-four percent of U.S. survey respondents say they are focusing on this shift, KPMG tells Health Data Management.
“The money pouring into digital health from tech companies is massive. But they’re not investing in hospitals; they’re investing in what’s around hospitals.”
Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health.
More health systems are relying on innovative care delivery models outside of the hospital, such as telehealth, remote patient monitoring and chronic care management, Sabanegh says.
“The future of healthcare is going to be point of care delivery, not hospital. Digital technology will be the 22nd century version of house calls,” says Dr Cole.
As a result, investment in alternative delivery methods is soaring.
“The money pouring into digital health from tech companies is massive. But they’re not investing in hospitals; they’re investing in what’s around hospitals,” Ochsner’s Thomas says.
Technology meeting consumers where they are
“The last two years have made virtual care more important than ever before. And the challenges we’ve overcome providing healthcare throughout the pandemic have only underscored the importance of providing options that meet people where they are.”
New payment models
Another top priority for CEOs is maneuvering through the complexities of different care and payment programs, such as accountable care organizations and other value-based care models.
“In some cases, you’re rewarded for reduced care for a fixed amount, and in others you’re paid for more care – but you still need to provide high quality care. It’s a struggle to live in both worlds,” says Marx of Divurgent.
Data analytics with predictive capabilities can play an important role, particularly with population management, says Bruce Holstien, CEO of Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.
“The technology is needed to identify patients in value-based care and determine risk, such as following which chemo patients end up in the ER and how to manage patients to affect outcomes,” he says.
The adoption of certain new technologies – including ever-evolving AI models that, at times, yield the wrong results – can create trust issues, says Davis of KLAS.
“Take sepsis. The doctor thinks the patient looks good. The AI says the patient is at risk for sepsis. The doctor thinks that the AI model is not good and starts to ignore it,” Davis says. “We need to help clinicians understand that the model is not absolute. It’s an indicator.”
Sabanegh acknowledges that technology often brings uncertainty.
“The puzzle pieces don’t always fit together,” he says. “There’s some friction to overcome to get the technologies to fit, and sometimes you’re not sure how they’ll work.”
As a result, he says, CEOs needs to embrace uncertainty. “It takes a certain leadership mindset.”
Davis points out that relying more heavily on technology requires taking the necessary steps to mitigate the risk of cyberattacks. “So often hospitals are brought to their knees,” he says of ransomware attacks and other intrusions. Recovering from having all data locked up “is an enormous task,” he says.
CEOs acknowledge that technology can play a huge role in transforming healthcare delivery.
“There has been a shift in healthcare from reactive to proactive to predictive,” says Thomas, the CEO at Ochsner. “We know we can use technology to care for patients with an understanding of all factors that influence their health. We must reimagine and revolutionize the experience and delivery of healthcare in a way that provides health, decreases costs and enhances the patient experience.”
Compared to other sectors, however, healthcare has a long way to go in making the most of IT, says Cole of MUSC.
“If you look at the business of healthcare, we’re at least one generation behind best practice,” he says. “At best we have a ‘yeah, but’ experience that’s duplicative and expensive. The challenge is not to step into the present but to leap into the future. We need to embrace digital technology. We have an opportunity here.”
But change management isn’t easy.
“Don’t underestimate it takes courage to make change,” says Guthrie Clinic’s Sabanegh. “Some leaders prefer the status quo, but you have to embrace change. It won’t work otherwise. We don’t have the resources. We have to figure it out for the patients. We have to remember that technology is just one tool in the box. Care is still human interaction and patient centered.”
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Marla Durben Hirsch is a freelance writer and editor specializing in healthcare and health law.