10 big ideas in health IT from 28 leaders and experts in the field

At the Becker's Healthcare Health IT + Revenue Cycle Management Virtual Event held from July 22 to 24, 28 leaders in health IT spoke about the biggest challenges during the pandemic, lessons learned and big ideas for the future. Here are 10 takeaways from the event.

Click here to view all sessions from the virtual event on-demand.

1. Everyone had a huge expansion of telehealth during the pandemic. Making that a differentiator is the new challenge. Health systems across the U.S. rapidly expanded telehealth capabilities earlier this year during the pandemic; many experienced more than 1,000 percent increase in telehealth visits nearly overnight, and now what used to be a novelty is likely here to stay. Health systems are planning to keep telehealth capabilities long term, regardless of how coverage changes for CMS and payers, because it's more convenient and cost-effective for patients.

But now telehealth is no longer a differentiator for health systems; to truly standout as patients become more selective about where they receive care, health systems are expanding capabilities to include scheduling and executing telehealth visits through apps and using patient information to curate a more customized approach. Going forward, the health systems that can stay ahead of consumer trends and provide the seamless patient experience ahead of others in the market are most likely to succeed.

2. Health systems with innovation centers were able to respond to pandemic needs swiftly. Innovation centers were busy during the pandemic executing far different projects than they had planned for 2020. For some systems, their innovation team became responsible for expanding the health system's ICU capacity and virtual communication capabilities. Others developed PPE manufacturing capabilities or 3D printing for ventilator parts. Now they are looking ahead to implement digital technology for a more touchless "hospital of the future" and expanding the "hospital-at-home" model with remote patient monitoring.

Innovation centers within health systems often operate differently than the traditional hospital bureaucracy, making the quick decision to try something new and then be equally as willing to scrap the project if it doesn't generate value. The rapid decision-making culture and mindset became necessary during the pandemic and will leave a mark on the operations for many organizations in the future.

3. The shift to remote work is harder culturally than it is technologically. Health systems sent a large percentage of administrative staff, and many clinicians as well, to remote work in March as the number of COVID-19 cases climbed; many are still working from home. The largescale transition to remote work presented technical challenges requiring CIOs to make sure everyone had secure access to vital information and could continue supporting frontline workers. They also needed robust communication platforms and capabilities.

But troubleshooting the technology was easy; managing remote teams during a stressful time has been harder. CIOs have found value in frequent communication with teams and are planning for more permanent remote work in the future. It takes a different skillset to effectively communicate, motivate and collaborate virtually, and CIOs are adapting to that change.

4. Business intelligence is now an urgent priority to deliver the minimum level of expected patient care. Even as hospitals are losing millions as a result of the pandemic, digital health and IT budgets are largely intact but re-focused to telehealth, remote work and business intelligence platforms with an eye on the future. Health systems on the cutting-edge see personalized patient experiences and building an excellent "digital front door" as mission critical to thriving in the future. The more data health systems have on their patients' preferences, the better they can tailor to their needs in all communications, clinical care and payment options.

5. There is a movement to do more with the technology health systems already have versus buying something new. Hospitals lost millions when elective procedures were halted across the U.S. to devote resources to caring for COVID-19 patients. As a result, the pot for IT spending that may have seemed limitless before the pandemic has dried up, and instead of investing in new ideas and quick fixes, health systems are looking for ways to solve problems with technology solutions and tools they already have. It may be challenging for CIOs to motivate their teams to innovate within existing capabilities, but will be essential at least in the short term.

6. Health systems want to hire more data scientists. The issues around COVID-19 data gathering and reporting that surfaced recently have highlighted the need for more data scientists in healthcare. Even health systems with robust data teams are looking to bring on more data scientists to expand data analytics capabilities and better communicate what the data means. The potential for data to improve clinical care and operational efficiencies is vast and the technology exists to gather the information; now health systems need the manpower behind it to utilize the data effectively.

7. The boring aspects of health IT are now the most important. Nobody is really excited about the use of chatbots in call centers or robotic process automation in the revenue cycle — these ideas aren't revolutionary — but they are quickly becoming among the most important initiatives for health systems aiming to improve the bottom line. If a new technology can help the health system treat patients more efficiently and remove extra cost from simple processes, it's worth the investment.

8. Automation is no longer a dirty word if it can boost the bottom line. Until the pandemic, many hospitals saw automation as a big time and cost saver but were reluctant to fully apply, due in part to a cumbersome decision-making process and potential job loss in communities where the hospital is a major employer. However, during the pandemic many healthcare providers furloughed or cut staff without the revenue from non-urgent surgical procedures. These leaner health systems still face financial hardship in the coming quarters and top executives are prioritizing automation as a way to become more efficient and effective.

9. Remote patient monitoring will disrupt the hospitals' business model around post-acute and nursing home care. As it became clear that patients at the hospital's long-term care facilities were at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, many began to send patients home and set up remote monitoring coupled with periodic in-person visits from nurses. That model has proven effective and patients may prefer to stay at home in the future, which would disrupt how the hospital does business in the post-acute space.

10. The cloud is the best place for healthcare data storage, but who is the right vendor? The cloud offered many advantages to health systems during the pandemic, allowing them to rapidly boost data storage as the amount of information about COVID-19 patients increased. It's easier to expand capacity and communicate information in the cloud, and makes the remote work environment more efficient. Microsoft, Google and Amazon all offer cloud services for healthcare providers, and going forward IT executives will seek partners that can align goals and be transparent about how data and information in the cloud will be used.


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