Top priorities for CIOs as COVID-19 spikes

The top priorities for healthcare CIOs continue to evolve as COVID-19 spikes across the U.S.

"We have recognized that our corporate information services team's top priority is less project-focused but more focused on mirroring the behavior of our front-line caregivers and leadership team," said Michael Restuccia, senior vice president and CIO of corporate information services at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. "Although the second wave of coronavirus was somewhat predictable, the environment we are operating within is different than the initial COVID-19 spike in the spring."

The main difference as the pandemic wears on is the extended level of fatigue and frustration among healthcare teams, Mr. Restuccia said, which adds to the consistent fear of the virus.

"New variables such as resurgence, widespread testing, vaccine availability and distribution require thoughtful discussions guided by data and technology," he said. "We all need to be nimble, available and flexible to adapt our systems, technologies and processes in support of our community and front-line caregivers."

More staff is being exposed to or testing positive for COVID-19 now than in previous months. Roger Lutz, CIO of Butler (Pa.) Health System said his top priority is making sure he has enough staff as team members contract the virus.

CIOs are often dealing with immediate needs, such as expanding bed capacity or providing staffing support, as well as future needs, like coordinating vaccine distribution and long-term virtual care capabilities.

"As our organization manages the current COVID-19 surge, it is hard to have a single top priority," said Mike Minear, senior vice president and CIO of Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pa. "We are opening up multiple surge inpatient units, moving and adding clinical equipment, such as hemodynamic monitors, Optiflow devices, mobile devices and others to support the material increase in patients."

Lee Carmen, associate vice president for information systems at the University of Iowa Health Care in Iowa City, is helping to expand capacity.

"We are focused on preparing our enterprise systems and infrastructure to support the immediate temporary addition of inpatient capacity to enable our providers to care for more inpatients than our facility normally accommodates," said Mr. Carmen.

Lehigh Valley is also building and testing changes to its Epic EHR to manage new COVID-19 therapeutics and prepare for the first two vaccine versions that are expected to be available in the coming weeks.

"There is a double version upgrade to our Epic EHR [on Dec. 5], and [on Dec. 9] we open a new emergency department at our Cedar Crest hospital with 97 adult ED exam rooms and 62 observation rooms, the largest in our organization's history," said Mr. Minear. "Just another week during the COVID-19 pandemic."

King of Prussia, Pa.-based Universal Health Services is also preparing for the vaccine, which will require two doses. Shipments of the vaccine have already been sent to select states, and the White House is prioritizing front-line workers for the first doses. UHS has hundreds of facilities across the U.S. and is focused on evaluating and planning for each state's allocation and reporting requirements.

"In the initial phase, as enrolled providers in the federal COVID-19 vaccination program, we expect to vaccinate our front-line clinical staff, high-risk patients and community first responders," said Mike Nelson, senior vice president of strategic services at UHS. "We are designing to a range of different scenarios, as we don't know yet, for example, the amount or the type of vaccine we will receive or the allocation prioritization. Further, ensuring coordinated hospital outreach within each of their respective communities will be critical."

Mr. Carmen said his second priority is related to the vaccine as well: configuring clinical systems to support the management and administration of the vaccine to the University of Iowa Health Care's workforce and patients safely and efficiently.

In Missouri, where new COVID-19 cases reached 18,211 in the past seven days, Moberly (Mo.) Regional Medical Center's IT director Jacob Ragsdale's top priority is maintaining patient confidentiality during the pandemic despite relaxed HIPAA sanctions and supporting safe patient care.

"Providing patients a comfortable setting and allowing as much technology to be connected to our wireless infrastructure while maintaining secure protocols is what can help them in this scary time," he said. "To touch on that a little further, we do what we can to help them communicate with outside family members and loved ones."

Stanford Children's Health CIO Ed Kopetsky said using digital technologies to improve patient care and outcomes, including telehealth and remote monitoring, is a priority. His team also uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to discover and implement best practices during the pandemic.

"We are equally focused on advanced analytics and predictive capabilities to increase quality and efficiency throughout our health system," said Mr. Kopetsky. "To achieve these priorities, I developed governance and planning structures to ensure alignment and successful change management. And of course having the highest performing [information services] leadership team and department is key to our success."

Steven Calicutt, director of IT for CenterPoint Hospital in St. Charles, Mo., said his focus is on expanding the hospital's telehealth presence and executing digital transformation by enabling business units to improve efficiencies across the organization. He is also working on cloud enablement.

Looking ahead to 2021, CIOs have a variety of projects planned that reflect how the pandemic changed healthcare delivery and organizational operations. Over the next six to 12 months, Lonnie Johnson, CIO of KVC Health Systems in Olathe, Kan., said CIOs will need to make sure their road maps reflect emerging strategies for cloud, mobile and telecommunication platforms.

"They will have to be able to use their adjusted road maps to quickly convince the executive leaders in the organization to enhance their budgets to accommodate this new strategy," said Mr. Johnson. "The consequences of not doing this is that you may be spending the same money as an organization in lost productivity, lost employee engagement and even employee turnover. The companies that are keeping in stride are the ones that are depending on their IT arm to enable business to continue."

When the pandemic hit, Envision Healthcare, a national medical group, accelerated its digital transformation and virtual care delivery models.

"In 2021, I want to continue to provide my team with the technology they need to support the delivery of high-quality care, independent of their location," said Kristin Darby, CIO of Envision. "Virtual health is a significant component, but so are artificial intelligence, automation and eliminating redundancies. As one of the nation's leading medical groups, the data which underpins many of our innovations is a valuable asset to leading the transition to value-based care."

St. Elizabeth Healthcare, which covers northern Kentucky, is also planning to improve and expand telehealth services next year, while maintaining privacy and security standards.

"This year has required St. Elizabeth as a care provider to be quick and nimble to accommodate ever-changing needs," said Vice President and CIO Alex Rodriguez.

Nationwide, communication is a top priority for CIOs. Tom Pacek, vice president of information systems and CIO at Inspira Health in Woodbury, N.J., is focused on making every touchpoint in the hospital contactless and as safe as possible. The health system is using electronic forms more regularly and electronic check-ins to minimize contact.

"It's important to communicate with everyone about operational changes such as visitation policies, office closings and preregistration for vaccines in real time," said Mr. Pacek. "In addition, we have a responsibility to provide patients access to their electronic records so they can receive their COVID-19 test results quickly, or be remotely monitored from home to safely shorten hospital stays, thus keeping hospital beds available for more critically acute patients."

Marcia Cook, CIO of Bates County Memorial Hospital in Butler, Mo., said communication is her top priority.

"We are expanding our digital signage, social media and website to deliver clear messages to our community," she said. "From the start, we used our digital signage to inform patients and visitors what we were doing to safeguard them and our staff. The approach was well-received in our community. We have developed new presentations to keep the messages relevant to the current surge."



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