What to expect for health system IT teams in 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic sparked change in the CIO role and IT teams, accelerating virtual care and remote work.

Those trends, coupled with the need for more data management and reporting, will affect the construction of IT teams moving forward and the CIO's position within the organization. Here, five CIOs outline what they expect for their organizations next year.

Question: How do you see the CIO role changing in the coming year?

Ray Gensinger, MD. CIO of Hospital Sisters Health System (Springfield, Ill.): In many ways, we have more and more responsibilities to bifurcate in how we work. On one hand, I have a lot of responsibility for managing and mentoring staff that is highly technical and very skilled in that profession. At the same time, I need to understand more and more about healthcare itself; how it's delivered, the workflows and how the tools we are developing are going to much more closely touch not only the providers but the patients themselves.

The other side of that bifurcated role is in the strategy. Clearly we have always had responsibility for the IT strategy, but what you're seeing is the information and/or digital strategy that is becoming more prevalent in a lot of organizations is a place where many CIOs may need to get involved more upstream with the rest of the leadership of the organization to solve problems with our technology as well as offer the technologies that can really make a difference and maybe even help the organization move forward. The whole concept of the ongoing growth in consumer digitalization and consumer engagement in their health really means that what we do on a day- to-day basis is going to be reaching all the way into the hands of every patient we care for. In many ways, it will also reach into the hands of individuals in our communities who aren't necessarily patients today.

B.J. Moore. Executive vice president and CIO of Providence (Renton, Wash.): At Providence we are seeing firsthand the expansion of the CIO role and its elevated value in the health system. I now report to our CEO, Rod Hochman, MD, and my role has expanded to include our real estate and operations function. This is in recognition of the future of a modern digital workforce and the evolution of our facilities in the future of modern digitally enabled care delivery.

Q: How will your IT team evolve in the next 12 months?

Michael Pfeffer, MD. Assistant Vice Chancellor and CIO of UCLA Health: 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.

Listen to the full Becker's Healthcare Podcast episode featuring Dr. Pfeffer here.

Zafar Chaudry, MD. Senior vice president and CIO of Seattle Children's: To contextualize for us, COVID had us pivot to virtual literally overnight. Prior to COVID we had 100 to 150 users working remotely at any given time. That then pivoted within a day or so to 4,000-plus users working remotely. As we've learned during this pandemic, our organization is the size that some groups of individuals do work very well from home, IT being one of those groups as well as parts of HR and finance. So, our future is about 2,500 people will permanently work from home. What that means for us is the evolution of providing always-on services around the clock, which is something we weren't typically used to doing.

As we evolve over the next 12 months, we will have to find and provide technical resources, skills, stability to infrastructure, access to our computer systems and any place any time as people work from home and coffee shops, etcetera. At the same time, to achieve that I believe we are going to need a mixed delivery model for the future for us at Seattle Children's. Some of those services will be provided by people employed by Children's, some of those services will be provided through strategic partnerships with key IT vendors to then give us the holistic 24/7 coverage.

Listen to the full Becker's Healthcare Podcast episode featuring Dr. Chaudry here.

Michael Elley. CIO of Baptist Health (Little Rock, Ark.): During the middle of the pandemic, and it's still going on strong, we had a top leader in our department retire so we are now going through a search and close to replacing that individual with a top leader. That will be a transition for the organization. I have a lot of leadership that have been here for 20-plus years, so introducing a new leader into that role with new thoughts and ideas and thoughts around how culture should be will be interesting.

We will have to navigate that in a remote environment. It's one thing to improve those things with everyone on site, you see them and look at them day to day; it's another thing to move the needle and focus on the cultural things you want to improve with the remote workforce. I don't have a lot of experience with this and we're learning as we go. We're pulling in other experts to help us along but that will be something that will be really different for us going forward.

Listen to the full Becker's Healthcare Podcast episode featuring Mr. Elley here.

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