'Wherever we can be creative and innovative, we're tackling that': UChicago Medicine CIO on gaining systemwide IT buy-in

The University of Chicago Medicine has had to take a hard look at its 2020 IT and systemwide project plans to shift priorities to best match the overall needs of the health system, according to CIO Heather Nelson.

As senior vice president and CIO, one of Ms. Nelson's top focuses is navigating the aftermath of quick telemedicine rollouts and building on the momentum to make digital health a top priority ahead of a potential second wave of COVID-19.

"Prior to the pandemic, we had our roadmap all laid out, but obviously that roadmap got expedited quickly and now that the genie is out of the bottle, we can't push it back in," Ms. Nelson told Becker's Hospital Review. "Those technologies were quickly implemented, so now we have the opportunity to think how do we sustain and optimize it and be more proactive in case there is another surge in the fall."

UChicago Medicine ramped up telemedicine and other digital capabilities starting in March, which the medical center says helped to recover much of its COVID-19-related losses while also serving a critical need for its patients. Still, UChicago Medicine needed to get ahead of lost revenue and lower patient volumes due to the pandemic. To adjust to the losses, the 811-bed academic medical center announced in early May it would scale back projects for the year, among other cost-savings measures, according to Ms. Nelson. She added that IT hiring has also been curtailed, with UChicago Medicine giving precedence to filling critical patient-facing and patient-supporting roles.

The decision to reduce the number of projects UChicago Medicine will deploy this year isn't just an IT problem, Ms. Nelson said. It's part of the health system's widespread effort to adjust and recognize new strategies that will help optimize workflows and operations.

"We don't have the luxury right now to do the 'nice to have'; we need to focus on what's the most critical thing for our patients, physicians, care team members and healthcare workers to make sure we can continue to be the best healthcare provider in the region and keep our patients and employees safe," Ms. Nelson said. "That's what we need to focus on. I have complete buy-in with my peers and team members; we're all in this together. I don't see it as an IT issue but rather a healthcare operational issue that we all play a role in supporting."

On the IT side, Ms. Nelson and her team are zeroing in on some of the technologies they believe to be most critical for patient care and operational health — telemedicine and data analytics. While virtual care has helped the health system limit COVID-19 exposures by delivering care to patients safely in their homes, data analytics have been crucial to supporting UChicago Medicine's clinical and business decision-making strategies.

In the year ahead, Ms. Nelson said she is looking forward to building digital health efforts and scaling IT systems optimizations. The health system is continuing to upgrade its EHR to improve clinical and business workflows and is also eying updates to some of its enterprise resource planning platforms. While the projects will have funding for support, Ms. Nelson said the work is important to strengthening UChicago Medicine's governance and portfolio management so the IT team continues to be seen as a systemwide partner.

"We're at the table to support the business any way we can," Ms. Nelson said. "Wherever we can be creative and innovative, we're tackling that. And sometimes it's not about being innovative with technologies — it's the people and the process as well that we want to continue to push to round out that people, process and technology mindset."

More articles on digital transformation:
Resist the urge to 'go back to normal': Mayo Clinic CEO sees digital health, virtual hospital as keys to improving access to healthcare
HHS, VA and energy department partner to use supercomputer, AI for COVID-19 data analysis: 4 details
Lifespan, Brown University collaborate on digital health center

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