The focus of the tech C-suite of the future? Data, data & more data, say health IT experts from Mayo Clinic, Eko & more

While the number of chief innovation officers and chief digital officers in hospitals and health systems will surely continue to skyrocket in the years to come, they may very well be overshadowed by exponential growth in the realm of the chief data officer.

Indeed, most leaders and experts in the space asked by Becker's Hospital Review to weigh in on the future makeup of healthcare organizations' IT C-suites agreed on the rising need for a data-focused executive.

Chief data officers

Cris Ross, CIO of Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, for one, predicted that leadership jobs of the future — and not only those in the IT field — "will increasingly be focused around the work of understanding where data are, and how to extract meaning and value from them."

This shift in focus will be driven by the fact that "insights and cognition come from seen and unseen patterns in data, not from our control over or mastery of data," per Mr. Ross. "Software will answer to data, not the other way around, as it used to be."

Jason Bellet, co-founder and COO of healthcare technology company (and Mayo Clinic partner) Eko, echoed that idea, saying, "Health systems can make more informed clinical and operational decisions when they harness their data."

As for what, exactly, leadership roles in this field will look like, "I see leaders who are tech-aware but fully rooted in the business side, responsible for envisioning what the business needs and possibilities are, but who are agnostic about the ways automation and cognition are delivered. And then there will be engineering or tech leaders who can inform the business leaders about the art of the possible, and who gather unmet needs and either source or create the next generation of cognitive and automation tools," Mr. Ross said.

Beyond those more strategic responsibilities, data-focused leaders will also have a vast array of more technical duties, such as "helping health systems identify solutions, such as AI-powered decision support tools, that can improve quality of care and streamline hospital operations," according to Mr. Bellet, and "providing data security and privacy, navigating laws and regulations governing patient ownership of data, managing datasets and ensuring interoperability of data management both inside the organization and with outside entities," per health tech futurist Alfred Poor, PhD.

Far from being an entirely new set of responsibilities, however, the creation of a data-centric executive will serve more as a transformation of existing IT focuses, creating "a single, more coordinated and efficient way to deal with the complex problems surrounding healthcare data," Dr. Poor explained, therefore removing data management from the already loaded plates of CIOs and CTOs.

There may not be a single title (or titles) that fit this broad range of data-driven executives, but, Mr. Ross proposed, "We should give all these people really cool titles as partial compensation for how mind-bendingly complex these jobs will be!"

Chief digital, innovation and AI officers

Besides a data-centric executive with a "really cool title," other experts cited the continued need for leaders in innovation and digital health, as well as in artificial intelligence.

"There will definitely be an expanding role for AI algorithms. That means selecting, implementing and keeping all under continuous surveillance for performance — no glitches, no hacking or adversarial attacks," said Eric Topol, MD, a cardiologist and the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Angela Yochem, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health, suggested that her own "non-traditional role" will increase in popularity.

"By creating non-traditional roles like chief digital officer, healthcare systems can respond to consumer expectations and appetites, and prioritize digital enhancements to care channels in a meaningful way for their patients," Ms. Yochem said, adding, "I believe that healthcare as an industry has been slow to realize this, and so it might take another five years or more to see positions like chief digital officer become standard."

With this slow-moving standardization is likely to come an increase in the power of the CDO and similarly strategic, rather than technical, IT roles. At Novant, for example, in contrast to the many healthcare organizations only beginning to tack on a CDO underneath the CIO or CTO, Ms. Yochem leads a senior staff that includes both of those more traditional roles, as well as the chief information security officer, chief data officer, chief medical information officer and chief digital health and engagement officer — therefore "reducing unnecessary fragmentation and avoiding duplicate or conflicting investments," she explained.

Chief innovation officers are all but guaranteed to see similar increases in their authority, especially compared to the current state of digital and innovation roles, which largely "lack teeth," according to Christina Farr, health and technology reporter for CNBC.

"They aren't given the budget, and the power, to make decisions that impact the future of their organization. I've found in my reporting that many of them, but not all, act more as figureheads than anything else," Ms. Farr said. "In the next decade, I expect that we'll see some major shifts in how the people in those roles are perceived internally. The chief innovation officers will continue to work closely with health tech startups on pilots, but they'll have more authority to translate those relationships into partnerships."

That power could come from a consolidation of C-level roles both within and outside of tech, she predicted.

"I expect that the chief innovation and chief digital officer roles will start to merge into one role, which also has its arms in the technology transfer office and is likely also responsible for programs that involve startups. Oftentimes, that's a doctor with a background or passion for technology and social media," Ms. Farr said. "Those that are working in technology will have a close working relationship with the chief executive officer, who will focus more on digital tools that enhance the experience for both the health professionals and the patients."

Whatever the day-to-day responsibilities of healthcare organizations' tech leaders of the future, and regardless of whether their titles are "cool" or not, experts in the field agree that the focus will be on relentless, continuous innovation, using all available data and technology "to maximize the opportunities to transform healthcare through digital technologies," per Mr. Ross of Mayo Clinic.

As Ms. Farr concluded, "The medical industry is starting to realize that it needs to do more with technology, whether it's to create better ways to exchange medical information electronically or new tools for doctors to communicate with patients, to compete in the digital age."

More articles on health IT:
Personalized experiences, collaborative AI & 3 more ways IT execs can fight 'tech-clash'
Cloud misconfiguration puts California behavioral health patients' data online
How to balance Gen Z's desire for digital health tools with boomers' reluctance

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