Healthcare CIOs in 2020: 3 key priorities & how the role is evolving

Only a few weeks into a new decade, CIOs from across the country have a lot on their agendas. While some are focused on transitioning to a new EHR or advancing data analytics and software infrastructure, all initiatives lead back to improving the lives of patients.

These same CIOs are also juggling the changing demands of their role. In the past decade, the CIO's role has transformed from a siloed tech leader to an integral member of the executive team. At one time, CIOs spent much of their time in data management and leading the EHR implementation. That's not the case anymore.

During an advisory call hosted by Becker's Hospital Review, four CIOs shared insight into their priorities for 2020, differing thoughts on emerging technologies, the benefits and challenges of going digital, the changing healthcare landscape and how it affects their roles, as well as three necessary skills to be successful.

Priorities for CIOs
The 2010s saw the rise of outside competitors infiltrate the healthcare ecosystem, including Amazon and Walmart. These disruptors are being closely watched by CIOs, whether it be for inspiration, a source of caution or a potential partner. Tom Barnett, the CIO of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center is not turning a blind eye to the technology endeavors of Silicon Valley, Calif., no matter how grandiose they may seem.

"Silicon Valley is definitely rising and innovating and introducing new competition into the marketplace. I think finding the appropriate places where you can partner or make sure that you are offering a similar experience is going to be critical going forward," Mr. Barnett said.

1. Digital solutions for patient engagement. Hospitals and health systems continue to look at outside forces in order to improve the patient experience, which is a high priority for CIOs. Similar to how consumers can shop online or make payments through an app, hospitals want to leverage digital solutions to improve patient engagement, including mobile apps and digital front doors for patients to interact with clinicians.

Creating digital solutions for patients can improve engagement and outcomes. Danny Scott, the CIO of Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes, Ind., credits the increased utilization in the patient portal as one of the reasons outcomes have improved. But hospital CIOs cannot just rely on patients being engaged to improve quality. Rather, hospital executives need to get smart with the data collected and applied.

2. Data management and security. Now more than ever CIOs from across the country are focused on improving their data, including how they are keeping it secure. For example, Los Angeles-based Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital is building out a data analytics team to support population health initiatives, said Chief Information and Innovation Officer Tracy Donegan.

To improve analytics, data collection and digital solutions, some hospitals are turning to outside vendors for assistance. Others are looking to improve their resources internally, including Mr. Scott who plans to work with his IT department to complete updates throughout the entire hospital. At Good Samaritan Hospital, Mr. Scott is working towards digital transformation activities to expand digital solutions and services.

Hospitals and health system leaders may also be considering outside partners to improve data security through cloud and endpoint security providers. However, when making these partnerships, hospitals must keep patient data security at top of mind.

"As I've often said, we are stewards of the data. The patients' own that data. We need to be making sure that we're doing the right surveilling and blocking of exit points and making sure that protected health information is utilized in a safe and effective way," said Mr. Barnett.

Mr. Barnett knows that patient data is a high-value commodity, with outside players looking to get their hands in the $3 trillion healthcare industry. Keeping patient data safe also comes with a high price tag. Randy Davis, CIO and vice president of CGH Medical Center in Sterling Ill., views the price of cybersecurity as just a cost of doing business.

"I'm scared to death of the bad clicks. We spend a fortune protecting our systems, but I don't have any real illusions about how vulnerable we still are," Mr. Davis said.

3. Artificial intelligence. CIOs are split in terms of experience with and opinions about artificial intelligence. Ms. Donegan is leveraging AI to improve administrative tasks and organize large datasets. She cites AI as a benefit to Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital for the greater level of accuracy it can bring in detecting and categorizing medical findings. However, Ms. Donegan also acknowledges the drawbacks, including the lack of human touch.

For others on the call, AI initiatives had not proven their worth. Particularly, smaller, independent hospitals attribute cost barriers as a reason for choosing to pursue other projects rather than AI.

"It seems like all of us CIOs are supposed to use that buzz phrase once a day to be able to somehow say, 'Hey, we're current on it.' But I have yet to see a firm concrete case study that tells me that this is something that drives enough value to be worthy of the time that the press seems to think we should be spending in AI," Mr. Davis said.

Echoing Mr. Davis, hospital CIOs are slowly exploring the possibilities of AI without throwing their entire budget into initiatives. At University of Rochester Medical Center, Mr. Barnett noted URMC is using AI to assist with certain types radiology image reading. He is trusting that AI will evolve, becoming more trusted with a greater presence. To prepare, Mr. Barnett is ensuring the hospital collects clean and quality data. He is also developing operational boards and conducting data quality reviews.

What the CIO position looks like today
Because technology is so pervasive throughout healthcare organizations, the executive team is relying more than ever on the CIO's expertise to make key business decisions.

According to Mr. Scott, "The CIO should have a seat at the senior leadership table and be a part of that decision-making because [technology] is so critical. That is where I see the role going. It's not just a tech role, but really the CIO has become a business enabler."

The CIO is now responsible for the health system's data storage and management, cybersecurity, revenue cycle platforms, telehealth initiatives and the digital patient experience, which touches every aspect of the organization. CIOs receive pitches daily for new and expensive technology promising to improve patient care, boost operational efficiency and guard against cyberattacks. When the tech leaders decide new technology is worth investing in, they must become proficient with a new skill: marketing.

"A huge part of my job as CIO is really marketing," Mr. Scott said. "I'm constantly marketing what [information services] does and what we can do for the organization. … We have to constantly be out marketing, showing what we can do, how we can bring value to the business [and] how we can drive the business. A lot of it is just getting people to understand why we're doing what we're doing."

Developing a healthy, effective IT team
Mr. Scott described a meeting with the entire senior leadership team at the beginning of January where he outlined his department's strategy for the year and introduced a new five-year digital transformation plan, requiring significant financial investment. By the end of the meeting, his CEO enthusiastically supported the plan and gave the go-ahead to present it to the hospital board and then begin moving forward.

Ms. Donegan agreed her role required sharp communication skills and, being from a smaller hospital, she finds it easy to obtain buy-in from leadership and staff because they see how technology can solve big issues or make their jobs easier. In some cases, the staff members drive technology initiatives because they understand the potential benefits, and Ms. Donegan's team provides support. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital's nursing leadership identified a startup with a mobile tool that standardizes the nurse handoff protocol.

"Our physician hospitalist got wind of it and he became interested, and now we're partnering with the vendor to develop a tool for our hospitalists as well as a tool for care management, and patient transfers from surgery and from the ED," she said. "These weren't our ideas. These were from the clinicians that wanted to do a better job."

Mr. Barnett also sees identifying the best technology as a new aspect of the CIO's role. He is mindful to ensure any department proposing new technology has a clear business case and will advance the system's five-year plan. He warned against "chasing technology for technology's sake" when making key investment decisions.

The CIO's team often includes members with a technology background, but increasingly health systems are also bringing on individuals with data scientist, analytics, innovation or design backgrounds who need to communicate with each other as well as clinicians and frontline staff members effectively. Recruiting and retaining elite team members is a challenge in all industries, including health IT.

As the CIO of a small, rural system, Mr. Davis said his system's strategy is simple: hire someone with the right background and critically evaluate that person shortly after they're hired to make sure they're a good fit for the organization. Then, when the team is in place, do everything possible to support them with training and career development opportunities.

Ms. Donegan employs a similar strategy. "You really have to have the right person," she said. "They better be connected to your mission and have the right cultural fit within the team…On the practical side, it's helping them manage the demand and their work-life balance. I bet everybody here can attest to the fact that their team works very hard…Just help them and encourage them to keep their work-life balance, but also involve them in the decision process, in development of the IT strategy and in their own personal growth with their careers."


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