Tackling the 'giant red flag' in healthcare digital transformation: Spectrum Health CIO Jason Joseph

While the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the boundaries of care by accelerating adoption of virtual services and digital communication, there is still a long way to go on the healthcare digitization journey, according to Spectrum Health System CIO Jason Joseph.

Mr. Joseph, who oversees the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based health system's information technology, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness strategies, has helped enhance Spectrum Health's tech initiatives throughout the pandemic, including ramping up telehealth visit capabilities and rolling out virtual waiting rooms to reduce spread of the virus.

Despite pushing digital transformation in healthcare "years ahead," Mr. Joseph told Becker's Hospital Review that the industry will need to keep channeling that same energy to successfully transition to a new care delivery model, focused on integrating traditional, in-person care with digital capabilities.

"It's not really going from traditional to digital, it's the integration of the two because there is very much a need for physical locations and for providers to see a patient face to face," Mr. Joseph said. "And there is a lot of opportunity to do that virtually with the right devices, equipment and technology, which ultimately will lead to a better experience for the provider and the patient while also lowering the cost of care."

The combination of digital processes, smarter data usage and automation can transform healthcare, and for Mr. Joseph, this doesn't mean just making processes such as payer and provider communications electronic. Rather, it's about retooling the experience of the consumer of the service and removing variation and manual steps starting when information is first captured in the process.

"There is still a lot of variation in care processes that gets in the way of digital transformation. For example, while we have a high degree of automation and digitization within our health system, we still use faxes in healthcare to communicate with other providers," he said. "That fax is essentially a giant red flag sticking up saying a process somewhere around here is broken because I have now resorted to the least common denominator of communications." 

In the worst-case scenario, resorting to fax means someone is printing something out, sticking it into a machine and having it print out on the other end; it's a "1960s era technology that we are still using in 2020," according to Mr. Joseph. A process cannot be digitized if it requires a fax, paper or manual step. For the healthcare industry to move forward with digitization, it will require health systems to systematically examine their processes for variation and manual steps. Adapting a lean, agile mindset and applying it across each part of the care model, starting with areas of highest impact, is the basis for approaching digitization.

Mr. Joseph said that he places the care process at the top,  representing the highest value  in the care model, but that the interactions between payer and provider,  specifically in value-based care arrangements, have real opportunities to reduce costs. Many health systems have additional processes in administrative work and around interactions between the provider and patient that could benefit from streamlining, automation and digitization.

“There are many business processes and different forms of communication that rely on a person, a step or something else to occur," he said. "If you were really re-thinking things, you would find a way to remove the step completely or engineer it to be automated, which really could cut out a lot of waste and cost."

Other industries such as banking and travel started their digital transformation processes at the beginning with the consumer experience and then worked backwards, according to Mr. Joseph. “With banking, the consumer now expects to be able to withdraw money or deposit a check without having to see a teller or visit a branch. Healthcare is still figuring out its digitization process, and while the industry presents challenges such as necessary in-person care, examinations and clinical services that may not be able to be digitized the same way as online banking or digital check-ins for flight travel, there are still opportunities for improvement across the board.” 

Healthcare is a "people-intensive industry" involving providers and procedures, so the business cannot be fully digitized, at least for the foreseeable future. However, supporting areas and many core services are "ripe with opportunity," Mr. Joseph said.

"That's the journey we're going to have to be on; we have to almost transform our lens, especially if you're in the IT business in healthcare to say: 'Digital transformation is our job. It doesn't mean just implementing, enhancing, and maintaining systems, but rather helping our organizations identify and start knocking down barriers and leveraging digital to the core.'"

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