Moffitt Cancer Center's 1st chief digital innovation officer: Don't forget about the people behind the innovation

Though it has been barely one month since Moffitt Cancer Center named Edmondo Robinson, MD, chief digital innovation officer of the Tampa, Fla.-based organization, Dr. Robinson has already dived headfirst into the newly created role.

Dr. Robinson, a practicing hospitalist and former chief transformation officer and senior vice president of consumerism at Wilmington, Del.-based ChristianaCare, is "very bullish on AI" — so long as the ongoing issue of algorithmic bias is carefully addressed — and has a three-pronged plan for using technology to revamp Moffitt's patient experience, clinician experience and back-end operations.

Even as a staunch supporter of IT initiatives' potential to optimize healthcare delivery, however, Dr. Robinson emphasized the core of all those initiatives: the people.

"When we think about digital, technology and innovation, sometimes we forget that there are people behind all of that," he said. "We have to be very, very focused on the fact that all of this innovation is going to hinge on our ability to manage change and manage the people and support the people through that change.

Here, Dr. Robinson outlines his plan to lead Moffitt's digital and innovation efforts, and explains why he thinks physician-innovators will be the next big trend in health IT.

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

Question: What are your goals and priorities as you shape this new role at Moffitt?

Dr. Edmondo Robinson:
It's a brand-new role, but it's not necessarily that wide open. It's really important when you think about digital that you really have to be consistent with the mission and vision of the organization. Moffitt is all about the prevention and cure of cancer, so the digital enterprise goals and objectives will need to fall right in line with that as well. There are really clear objectives and we have a strategic plan called Impact 2028, which make it very clear where we're supposed to go. My perspective on digital is not that it is its own thing; my perspective on digital is that it is the enabler and accelerator of your overall strategy.

With that in mind, at the higher level, there are three big buckets where you can really leverage digital in an organization like Moffitt. One is consumer digital, thinking of all the ways that your patients and caregivers and so forth are interacting with the health system in digital ways — everything from virtual care to scheduling appointments to paying bills. If you think of all the different ways that they interact with the rest of their lives, so much of it is digital, so how do you import those same concepts into how they interact with healthcare?

The second bucket — which I think doesn't get enough attention and needs a lot more — is clinician digital, thinking about how all of those who are providing the care interact with the digital systems that are built around healthcare. This idea of provider burnout is a big topic, and we should be spending significant amounts of time optimizing those interfaces and those digital interactions so that our clinicians and other caregivers can focus on actually improving the health of those that we serve and less on interacting with the systems that are supposed to enable that care.

And then the third bucket is operations, thinking about all the opportunities to improve operations, decrease waste, make things more efficient. There's a ton of opportunity in that back office. Maybe it's a little less sexy than all the other stuff that people are going to actually see, but it's critically important so that we can spend our resources on directly improving care and less on some of the back office things that can be refined and optimized through digital means.

Q: How might you define success in this role? When you look back a year from now, how will you know that you're making progress?

We'll know we're making progress if the broader strategic goals for the organization are being achieved, in part because we have leveraged digital innovations to get us there. For example, we have a goal around growing, taking care of more patients. Well, how has digital innovation enabled and accelerated our ability to grow? That's how we'll track whether or not we were successful. I know it would be much easier if we said, 'If we have 10 projects that we've launched in a year, then we're successful.' It's not quite that clean, though. It's got to stay strategic. Otherwise, you're off chasing shiny objects and you're not staying aligned to the strategy of the organization.

Q: Do you foresee any challenges in implementing your digital innovation strategy alongside the larger organizational goals? And if so, how do you plan on overcoming those obstacles?

ER: The biggest challenge will always be — and I feel very strongly about this — the people. "Challenge" is probably not the right word for that, but when we think about digital, technology and innovation, sometimes we forget that there are people behind all of that. We have to be very, very focused on the fact that all of this innovation is going to hinge on our ability to manage change and manage the people and support the people through that change.

The challenge is going to be on our end to make sure that we have the resources and the focus and the discipline to support people through the change that's going to be necessary to help carry us into a much more digitally enabled service.

Q: You have an MD and MBA; you were a chief transformation officer and a vice president of consumerism. How will all of those varying types of expertise serve you in this new role?

I was just chatting with a colleague of mine at another institution about that this week. I think, increasingly, we should have clinicians who are well-versed in leading these digital innovation efforts. Of course, I'm a little biased being a doc, but I really think that when you've been at the front line taking care of patients, improving their health outcomes and, quite frankly, saving lives, if you've been there supporting their family, supporting the caregivers and seeing what that looks like and spending your time and energy doing that, it gives you a different perspective when you step back and start having conversations around what digital innovation means.

I really think that's going to be more and more of a trend, and I think that it's going to be critically important if we're going to do this well. This idea that really smart pure technologists are going to come in and be able to articulate and develop the change management necessary around this without really strong clinician support — I don't think that's going to work. You look at someone like John Halamka, who was at Beth Israel Lahey and now is over at Mayo: He's been a CIO for years and he's also a physician, and he was pretty much a trailblazer in that. I think that's going to be more of the trend. You think about physician CIOs, physician leaders of digital and innovation — I think that's going to be broadly the trend. I think it's really, really critical that we really think about what the clinical side of this innovative work looks like.

Q: It often seems like a lot of new health IT leaders are coming from outside of healthcare, so it's interesting that you see the trend moving in the opposite direction.

ER: Definitely. Part of it is there's not a lot of us doctors, nurses and others who are either trained or even comfortable with the technology side of things; it's relatively new. You've got a great crop of chief medical information officers that are developing — we've got a really strong one here [at Moffitt] in Dr. Randa Perkins — but even that is relatively new. So that transition and that trend is early still, but I think it's definitely going in that direction.

Going back to the original question: I have an MBA, I've done clinical operations, I've done hospital operations, I've done transformation. So, what I bring to bear here, when I think about the job and the business side and management, is how I can improve operations using digital innovation. I've been in hospital operations, so I think about how I can leverage digital innovation in some of these core hospital operations, because I've been there and helped build patient towers and things of that nature.

And then you think about the transformation side, and for me, that's really important. The difference, from my perspective, is there's a difference between innovation and transformation. I'm thinking about innovation in terms of something that's new with an uncertain outcome, and it's really, really important that you continue to innovate. It has an uncertain outcome, which by definition means it may fail, but that's OK — we should learn how to fail better, especially in these spaces around digital. Transformation is different: It takes innovation — all that we're learning from innovation and all that we're learning from implementation science — but the job is to make that learning stick long-term. It's really about leveraging change management. If you're truly transforming something, that thing looks different when you're done; but when you innovate and you fail, it could look exactly the same.

That's the perspective I bring as I think about digital innovation. It's not going to be just about innovating things, because you can have an endless spin cycle around innovating. You want to actually make sure things stick long-term so that you truly are a new entity at the end of the day.

More articles on innovation:
Viewpoint: Revamping federal seed funding program will boost US innovation
Innovation is thriving outside of urban centers: report
15 states named 'innovation champions' for 2020

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