Previously published on ForbesThere’s a lot of well-deserved praise and press right now for the doctors, nurses, techs and other healthcare workers who are doing their jobs under incredibly difficult circumstances. We are all deeply grateful for their skill and dedication under fire. The reports coming out of the front lines of this crisis are both heartbreaking and inspiring.
There’s another group in the healthcare environment that’s also stepping up, and in ways that frequently go unnoticed: the information technology people. Often tucked away in the far reaches of the building, IT workers have had to adapt quickly to a whole new world in healthcare. A big part of their job is now about ensuring that people can connect, collaborate and stay in communication.
The IT folks are also serving in ways they might not ever have imagined before. In some hospitals, they’ve become patient liaisons, helping those whose families cannot come visit them stay connected by providing iPads and other technical tools to allow patients to “see” their loved ones remotely. As way of reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness, this is vital to the patient’s healing and recovery. Who would have thought the IT guy would be offering service and support to patients?
After hearing more and more about this, I became curious. How are the leaders of IT in healthcare doing? What are they paying attention to now?
To find out, I spoke with Jeff Tenant, VP of Healthcare Information Strategy & Services at ROI Healthcare Solutions. Jeff had recently hosted a roundtable with a combination of CIOs and Clinical Leaders in which Skip Rollins from Freeman Health System in Missouri, Linda Stevenson from Fisher Titus in Ohio, James Reed and Joshua Tenant from Conway Regional Health System in Arkansas, and former CMIO Dr. John-Paul Jones from Centra Health in Virginia all shared their perspectives.
Three themes emerged from the roundtable discussion: changing, expanding and preparing. Specifically, changing the role of the IT Leader, expanding the use and engagement of technology in the delivery of healthcare and preparing for the next crisis.
Changing the Way IT Leaders Engage
IT has traditionally been viewed as a service, not a leadership area. My friend and colleague Dan Roberts, author of “Unleashing the Power of IT” and “Confessions of a Successful CIO,” did a webinar for Harvard Business School’s Healthcare Alumni Association called, “Digital Transformation: Facts, Fiction and Beliefs.” He challenges CTOs to move up the “maturity curve” from being an IT Supplier and Solution Provider to becoming a Strategic Partner and “Innovative Anticipators.”
Dan offers that tech leaders seem to be sorting themselves into three types:
1. Untrained, Accidental leaders who may not keep their jobs for long after the pandemic ends.
2. Effective Managers who navigate through the here and now, thriving on the adrenaline.
3. Innovative Anticipators who are leading the crisis response while setting their companies up for bigger wins down the road.
These CIOs have been effectively leading their organizations through the pandemic. The question is, how will they move out of crisis mode and look up and out to the future?
Expanding Reach through Telehealth Solutions
Many of the CIOs shared that, prior to Covid-19, telehealth seemed futuristic and unnecessary to a lot of people, including healthcare professionals and executives. The IT leaders saw it as amazing and beneficial, but people around them weren’t convinced. The patients weren’t asking for it and neither were the physicians. That is, until people were told to stay home and socially distance themselves.
One CIO shared about the slow progress they saw in physicians adopting and using telehealth pre Covid-19. It was always on the back burner. Now, there is no denying the need for it. One health system went from zero telehealth visits to over 1,000 a week over the past few weeks.
Clinics in rural areas in particular are seeing the benefits now that clinicians don’t have to travel hours to see a handful of patients. Telehealth is also benefitting specialties that were convinced it couldn’t be adapted to their needs. One IT leader shared how his team previously struggled to get orthopedists on board with telehealth as an effective option for post-surgery consultations with patients. The docs said they needed to touch their patients. Thanks to the pandemic, though, they’ve had no choice but to try it. And now they’re seeing that it can indeed work with some patients.
Preparing for the Next Big Event
Call it pessimism or pragmatism, but there will be more crises on the horizon. Hospital leaders need to be corralling their learnings and missteps and creating a plan for the next disaster. Every organization has to have a plan in place that helps them be more prepared. “I hope the new norm is an improved norm,” John-Paul Jones shared. “I don’t want to go back to where we were. Let’s learn about what’s broken and not just duct-tape solutions.”
The good news, as Linda Stevenson pointed out, “There’s quite an appetite for change now. Providers, clinicians, everybody’s chomping at the bit to see what’s possible with innovation, with regulations and payment models.” The next chunk of work for the IT leader is to harness that energy for positive organization-wide change.
While there are innovative organizations that have included IT in their leadership decisions and priorities, it has also been common for IT to be underestimated. Today, Information Technology is being regarded differently in the age of the pandemic. There is an opportunity for IT leaders to show their value, innovate and make a big difference. Will you step up and become a courageous voice for change? Will you become an “innovative anticipator”? The stakes are high—and we are depending on you.