The chief digital officer: Determining the need, defining the role

In the consumer world, there are many choices. We go online to purchase our mortgage, research car choices, do our banking, book our travel, find our hotels, buy our groceries and more.

In part, Uber, Amazon and the smart phone have created an environment where we all expect quick delivery. Consumers now expect instant gratification and we’re seeing patients behave in the same way – influenced by an abundance of choices, they are not bound to get everything from one provider anymore.

How, as consumers, can patients get this expedited engagement in healthcare? Millennials are the next wave of consumers in healthcare and have different expectations when it comes to consumption and service. How is healthcare preparing for this next generation of patients? We are now shifting towards a reimbursement model of fee for value. How does healthcare create a digital strategy to drive value in our evolving healthcare environment? What does the next generation patient service model look like?

The role of the Chief Digital Officer is to provide answers to the organization on how to effectively engage digitalization. The Chief Digital Officer is grounded in the awareness that patients are consumers and want to have choices in their healthcare. This role’s focus is to leverage digital technology and create an eco-system to keep and draw patients into healthcare delivery systems. This is largely an outward-facing role to drive transformation grounded in three principles.

First, assess the organization’s core philosophy when it comes to technology and digital innovation. What transformational ideas do you believe will be inevitable for healthcare in the future and then how are you going to promote that ideology throughout your health system digital roadmap? Develop and optimize a digital strategy that aligns with the strategic goals of the organization. This includes looking for ways to enhance patient engagement and their experience. Promote and facilitate digital innovation including comprehensive digital health governance. Think about next generation profit and loss opportunities to address business and security issues in addition to patient involvement.

Second, you can’t change your organization if you don’t change your culture. How do you foster and promote a cultural shift that supports your digital agenda? Are there new organizational models that should be adopted and deployed?

Lastly, key performance metrics are important. You shouldn’t measure your new ideas with your existing methodologies. What are the right metrics now to measure progress? How will you know whether your digital initiatives are successful?

Defining the Role

These and other important operational and strategic issues can best be answered by an experienced CDO. What are the qualifications for an experienced CDO? Ideally:
• Extensive experience leading transformation within and outside of healthcare
• An understanding of the opportunities and challenges in deploying digital health
• The ability to be an innovator with experience in commercialization and a background in IT
• Also, experience driving large scale changes with competing resources and priorities
• The ability to bridge the technical and clinical/business missions
• Raising the level of healthcare service to fully embrace consumerism utilizing vision and innovation
• The ability to drive practice transformation using informatics principles

Soft skills are equally important for this senior role, including extraordinary, magnetic leadership, diplomacy, creativity and change management skills. It should be someone who can break down silos, rethink the traditional healthcare delivery model and be a visionary. CDOs can come from many different avenues including innovative CIOs, CTOs, CEOs, CMIOs and CNIOs. Their education spans a wide gamut but most have advanced degrees including PhDs, MBAs, and Master's in various healthcare areas, computer science and engineering.

Lastly, an important question: Will your organization try to combine this role with another such as the CIO? Dr. Alistair Erskine, Chief Digital Health Officer with Partners HealthCare, believes that "the ideal scenario is a partnership of the CIO and CDO as this is two jobs rather than one. The CIO has expertise in the deeply technical space while the CDO can bridge the technical and clinical/business missions. The organization's needs can best be met with a CIO and CDO working together to support visioning and innovation."

The CIO’s responsibilities today are inward facing and massive including infrastructure, applications, clinical systems, revenue cycle, information security, and data warehousing, among others. If responsibility for a health system’s digital transformation is folded under this complex office, most likely that digital transformation will result in one-off innovations. The CDO is a dedicated full-time role of a strategic leader providing a key business function in today’s dramatically changing digital environment. The better model would be the CIO and CDO forming a highly functional partnership as peers with the same reporting structure.
Those health systems that recognize the importance of the CDO position will undoubtedly be ahead of the competitive curve and poised to serve healthcare’s consumers in today’s changing digital world.

Hillary Ross is a senior partner and leader of Witt/Kieffer's Information Technology Practice. She focuses on identifying CIOs, CDOs, CISOs and other information technology leaders for hospitals, healthcare delivery systems, academic medical centers, colleges and universities, vendors and consulting firms across the country. Specializing in the recruitment of senior-level physicians and other clinicians, she conducts searches for chief medical information officers (CMIOs) and chief health informatics officers (CHIOs) as well as IT leaders in the areas of data analytics, research, personalized medicine, informatics, and biomedical informatics. She is leading the practice toward emerging areas such as blockchain technology and artificial intelligence in healthcare.

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