Bon Secours Mercy Health's chief digital officer: Digital health without patient engagement is like 'electronic trees falling in an electronic forest'

Jason Szczuka became Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health's first chief digital officer on June 28, and he brings a wealth of payer experience to the role. 

Mr. Szczuka most recently served as Cigna's chief digital officer. Before that, he worked at UnitedHealth Group and GE Capital.

At Bon Secours Mercy Health, he serves an organization with 50 hospitals, thousands of providers, more than 1,200 points of care and 60,000 employees in seven states and two countries. 

"What I was most excited about [in joining Bon Secours Mercy Health] was their leadership through the pandemic," he said. "When I think about their response to the rapid rollout of virtual services, and then as vaccines became available, the way they so quickly got vaccine sites out into our many markets, I knew it was an all-star team I'd be joining."

Coming to the position from the payer space also gives him a chance to be on the care delivery side with a digital health focus, he said.

"The way I view the promise of digital health and where, as a society, we have not optimized it yet, is the extension of the actual delivery of great care in the more convenient, connected and consistent forums, so that all participants can be greater contributors and greater receivers of the benefits of this new forum. And that will require that we connect at the nexus of virtual care and in-person care. Only by doing that will we begin to fulfill the digital health promise," said Mr. Szczuka.

He spoke to Becker's July 15 about his strategies to improve digital patient engagement, use technology to improve health equity and growing the system's innovation programs.

He described patient engagement as "the lifeblood of digital health work," and said that without it, "We're electronic trees falling in an electronic forest." 

He also noted that patients desire and demand convenience when it comes to their healthcare because, "You have minutes to satisfy a customer in today's world, and patients have the same standards."  

He said hospitals and health systems, including Bon Secours Mercy Health, "need to have the multiple systems that are working for a patient to be talking to each other and reacting with each other." 

That way, health systems have patients' predictive analytics to know what patients need from the organizations in terms of digital health, said Mr. Szczuka.

He said health systems should have more frequent digital interactions with patients, "so it is as much a part of [patients'] daily [healthcare] maintenance as it is their journey across their care."

"The reality is we not only have the right, but we also have the obligation as a provider of care to be doing this for the patient," said Mr. Szczuka. "It's what they are expecting of us. It's what they are demanding of us."

Health systems have also increasingly focused on health equity and addressing disparities in healthcare, as these disparities have become even more highlighted amid the pandemic. This increased focus extends to the digital health and technology realm. 

Mr. Szczuka said he believes there is opportunity to bridge the digital divide between technology and health equity among the poor and underserved populations.

"Too often, too many people stop short with the excuse that the digital divide among these populations is too big to help them digitally. We think the exact opposite [at Bon Secours Mercy Health] in that it's even more critical that behind the scenes we have advanced technologies driving predictive analytics so we can get ahead of the care needs for these patients so we can more effectively outreach to them, intercept further regression and get them connected to the care they need at that point of time," he said.

"If we don't attack it like that, that population will drift farther and farther into the abyss, which is to their personal detriment and to the overall industry's detriment as well," he said.  

At the same time, he said Bon Secours Mercy Health is proactive in innovation, and his message to innovators is that the health system can be a great supporter and accelerate innovators in whatever direction they're looking to go to solve big healthcare problems. 

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