Health innovation insider: 7 rapid-fire Qs with Sutter Health's digital patient experience chief Dr. Albert Chan

Albert Chan, MD, chief of digital patient experience at Sutter Health, credits the Sacramento, Calif.-based health system's widespread collaboration efforts to rapidly scale virtual care as one of the IT achievements he has been most proud of during the pandemic.

In December, Sutter Health reached more than 1 million video visits completed by its clinicians since March 2020. Collaboration between the health system's front-line clinicians and administrative staff has been one of the driving factors for the success of the program, Dr. Chan said.

Here, Dr. Chan shares some rapid-fire insights on Sutter Health's telehealth innovations as well as digital transformation across the healthcare industry in wake of the pandemic.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What COVID-19 data dashboard do you find yourself checking the most?

Dr. Albert Chan: I frequently check CDC and California state websites to track COVID-19 positivity rates and trends across the communities we serve. It provides a connection to purpose that guides our work for the day and weeks ahead.

We've also developed an internal dashboard that provides us with a glimpse of how our digital health interventions such as video visits and self-service tools including online appointment scheduling are helping our patients, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: If you had to choose just one, which one of your organization's IT achievements has made you the most proud during the pandemic?

AC: It's been amazing to see what we can achieve when teams from across our organization collaborate. In December, we hit a milestone that none of us could have imagined a year ago — marking more than 1 million video visits completed by Sutter clinicians since March 2020, as compared with just 7,000 total visits in all of 2019.

With virtual care, we talk a lot about the technology. However, it's our people who make these advancements possible. I'm incredibly proud of our teams — both the front-line clinicians and those supporting our work behind the scenes. They have worked tirelessly to make sure we could continue caring for our patients, whatever their needs.

Q: In which ways do you think the pandemic has catalyzed innovation in health IT?

AC: If there's a silver lining to glean from the COVID-19 crisis, it's that necessity fueled rapid adoption of providing and receiving virtual care. While telehealth is not a substitute for in-person care, it has become an essential part of the overall care experience. With this shift, we now have the opportunity to accelerate innovation and think beyond our preconceived boundaries. We can personalize care even more, which can support better outcomes for our patients and their families.

Q: How do you think the pandemic has shined a greater light on predictive analytics?

AC: We recognize that the increasing use of telehealth services provides an opportunity to expand equitable access to healthcare for socially disadvantaged and underserved communities. We are committed to designing long-term solutions that can help us achieve health equity in the populations we serve. Through our partnership with Sutter's Institute for Advancing Health Equity we are developing metrics and analytics using dynamic population data to help identify disparities in telehealth usage. The goal of this research is to design interventions that can be applied to support more equitable access and help close care gaps in vulnerable communities.

Q: How would you most like to see health IT further adapt to the pandemic?

AC: It's clear we've embraced the next normal. Virtual care has quickly become an important touchstone for our patients. It also is destined to play a larger role in the care we provide to our communities across our integrated network. As we look ahead to new care models, we remain focused on building our digital health capabilities in a way that adds value to the patient and care team experience. Technology will continue to enhance human connection.

Q: What's the first word that comes to mind when you think about your innovation team's response to COVID-19?

AC: Purpose. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic help illuminate our organization's mission. It's been inspiring to see everyone's shared sense of purpose to take care of our patients and keep them — and each other — safe. In response to the pandemic, we exponentially increased the volume of video visits completed per day — from an average of 20 to 7,000 in less than a month. We also activated approximately 5,000 clinicians for telehealth in four weeks to support this goal.

Q: What's been the biggest roadblock to COVID-19 innovation?

AC: The pandemic has tested us in so many ways. Our teams rose to the challenge every time. I can't help but wonder how much longer we can keep that energy going. I think it's imperative to acknowledge the importance of our teams' needs to pause and catch their breath. This practice can help them refuel and continue to innovate for the long term. That can be quite challenging amidst the frenetic pace and day-to-day response needs of this public health emergency.

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