Dr. Michael Pfeffer: How UCLA Health's IT organization will evolve in 2021

Michael Pfeffer, MD, assistant vice chancellor and CIO of UCLA Health, outlined his top priorities during the pandemic, key investments and the organizational IT strategy for 2021 in a recent episode of the Becker's Healthcare Podcast.

Here is a brief excerpt from the conversation. Click here to download the entire discussion and subscribe to the Becker's Healthcare Podcast here.

Note: this article is lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: How will your IT department evolve over the next year?

Dr. Michael Pfeffer: We really have to understand the future workplace, and it's going to enable flexibility, working safely, increased productivity and figuring out how to do all of that while maintaining connectedness to patient care and research and education missions that are essential to UCLA Health.

We've been doing telework at UCLA Health for about five years, which is a combination of coming into work a few days per week and then working from home other times, so we've really learned how to plan for your week versus planning for your day. When you come into the office you work with your business owners, you round in clinics and the hospital, and when you're working from home you can do your very technical projects that require a lot of concentration. That framework has been really helpful for us over the past five years and as we've transitioned to fully remote work in the pandemic. We've learned how to adapt to that very quickly.

What is the future? How do we maintain connectivity with our teams? How do we continue to build important relationships, and how do we make sure we are completely connected to our missions? Those are really important things we have to focus on. We are also spending a lot of time on our digital patient experience. As you know, lots of amazing telehealth opportunities came to be during the pandemic. About 20 percent of our total visits remain video, so it's about really understanding that experience, continuing to drive the virtual care experience and innovate while at the same time ensuring the physician-patient relationships continue to thrive.

Finally, we have a continued laser focus on the unit cost of IT, and this is really given everything that's going on with the pandemic, such as decreased revenues, but also to enable us to implement transformative technologies and strategic partnerships for co-developments. Any money that we can divert from the typical day to day operational costs into really transformative technologies is going to be key given the current milieu we are in.

Q: What are the key investments you plan to make in 2021?

MP: I really think investment in our cloud-based research platforms around high performance computing, artificial intelligence and the machine learning toolkits and integrating them back into our EHR is really key. We are continuing to invest heavily in that from a cost and resource standpoint. We are incorporating our EHR data with genomics data and other kinds of data, such as real-time wait forms and radiological images. All of these things are so critical to our research mission and improving patient care — that translational aspect of taking research- derived algorithms or other type of technologies and applying that into the operations and patient care delivery aspects of what we do — that is a real area of investment for 2021.

We are also really thinking about communication. This idea of unified communication is important — how care providers communicate with each other and the patient, and how researchers, educators communicate in the new world we see ourselves in. We are investing in those types of technologies.

Then really I think it's not so much going out and purchasing technology per se, but investment in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives both within our IT organization and with our patients. We're looking at health disparities, understanding what tools and optimization opportunities there are in our EHR to enable and improve this, looking at how telehealth tools are being used, and thinking about the IT organization and how to continue to mentor and increase diversity. We want to increase the number of people interested in healthcare IT, which is such an amazing field. We're doing a lot of work on that; we have invested a lot already this year and will continue to do that in 2021.

There is no shortage of work that needs to be done. It's fun to be on the health IT side because you get to work across many aspects of the organization to help enable these ideas.

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