CIOs step into new roles to assess a slew of digital tech 

With thousands of startups emerging, UC Davis hopes its CoLab will better enable information sharing and research on new solutions.

Chief information officers are increasingly taking on new responsibilities for wading through myriad digital health solutions to achieve a patient-friendly, clinician-helpful digital strategy. 

Ashish Atreja, MD, CIO and digital health officer for UC Davis Health:

Now, with digital health, the conversation has gone from ‘Why?’ to ‘How fast can you get it?’

It’s no easy task, notes Ashish Atreja, MD, CIO and digital health officer for UC Davis Health. Rapid development, jump-started by the pandemic and the rush to empower patients, has produced an alarming array of solutions from which to choose. 

Speaking at a CIO and CDO Summit at the VIVE event in Miami Beach, Atreja noted there are an estimated 5,000 digital health startups for CIOs to assess, with senior leadership now pressuring IT executives to carve out a digital approach to care. 

Not ‘Why’ but ‘How Fast’ 

“The role of the CIO has evolved; they’re being asked about creating value from everything in the EMR, and now with digital health, the conversation has gone from ‘Why?’ to ‘How fast can you get it?’ he said. “The role has been transformed in five years’ time to know all about new technology.” 

The event at VIVE – entitled “Future and Health” – is part of an initiative by UC Davis to bring together decision makers to bring together thought leaders and share experiences to provide better direction and share knowledge on digital health innovations. VIVE was jointly held by HLTH and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). 

Last year, UC Davis formed the UC Davis Digital CoLab, a digital collaborative for innovation and validation. While stating that initial efforts aimed at innovation to support care in California, it is expanding its mission to provide a forum for broader discussion of digital health innovation. Part of the effort’s goal is to provide real-world support to solution developers that want to create and launch new products.  

Recently, the initiative announced the creation of the UC Davis Health Cloud Innovation Center, in partnership with Amazon Web Services. The project aims to launch a cloud innovation center that is focused on applications intended to achieve digital health equity – it is intended to be an open-source platform that can power innovation in digital health and artificial intelligence, Atreja said. 

At VIVE, the message from panel participants was that better collaboration among IT executives can help bring sense to the jumble of technology. The problem is made more complex across the industry because organizations have different approaches and understandings of how best to adopt digital health technology. 

The identification process 

For example, the expansive Kaiser Permanente system has already seen positive results from its forays into digital health. As one metric, use of its web sites grew to more than 700 million site visits in 2021, nearly double the previous year, said Prat Vemana, chief digital officer for Kaiser Permanante. It’s pursuing a digital strategy that can produce measurable results. “I’m looking for approaches that can create relevancy within the organization and where I can obviously see a reason for it.” 

A more utilitarian approach is being followed at St. Luke’s University Health Network, says Matthew Fenty, its managing director of innovation and strategic partnerships. He’s looking for solutions that fit within its technology stack, and particularly those that address current challenges. “We’re looking for alignment with the goals, metrics and gaps that we face every day,” he said. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida does not make decisions based on whether a solution is digital or not. Its approach is much more fundamental, said Edmondo Robinson, MD, its senior vice president and chief digital officer. “We don’t have a digital strategy,” he asserted. “Our approach is to understand what our organization is trying to do and meet that, and bring in technology tools that accelerate that. If you have a different digital strategy, you’re screwing up.” 

Build, buy or partner 

Some larger healthcare organizations continue to weigh whether it’s best to build the digital technologies they need or partner with outside organizations. It’s often a mixture, said Neal Patel, MD, chief informatics officer for health IT, Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

Assessing pitched technologies is often a challenge, and that’s where outside resources are crucial, Patel said. “We try to figure out which ones are real and where has it worked,” he said. “That’s where I use my phone a friend and ask a colleague how a company is to work with. Do they listen, or do they just want to get the contract? I ask (solution providers) how they will connect with our ecosystem and where are you going?” 

There’s a “cacophony of acronyms” and a multiplicity of solutions that are chasing esoteric problems, when Vanderbilt faces digital health challenges that are more along the lines of “I can’t find parking at the hospital,” Patel said. These relationships often call for incremental, collaborative partnerships, he added, using the illustration that, “the analogy is a lunch date, you’re not good enough for a dinner date right now.” 

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