How IT teams are changing due to the pandemic

A healthcare leader goes in-depth on how COVID-19 changed how IT teams currently operate.

Nicholas Szymanski serves as the vice president and chief information officer at Brockton, Mass.-based Signature Healthcare. 

Mr. Szymanski will serve on the panel "Top IT Investments of Smart CIOs" at Becker's 7th Annual Health IT + Revenue Cycle Conference. As part of an ongoing series, Becker's is talking to healthcare leaders who plan to speak at the conference, which will take place Oct. 4-7 in Chicago. 

To learn more and register, click here.

Question: What are you most excited about right now?

Nicholas Szymanski: I feel like every day, every year, there's a new technology emerging or a new way of doing things, and I think that is very exciting. In the last few years, some big breakthroughs have come through. Also, continuing down some of the paths we already are, with wearables, getting our care into the patient's home, and getting to them rather than the traditional model of the patients having to come here. As more opportunities come into that realm, I think that will benefit the patients.

Q: What challenges do you anticipate over the next two years?  

NS: I see the same challenges that we're faced with now. So, you have security and interoperability; everyone likes to discuss that, and it's a very warranted subject. However, something that hits home, maybe because I just had a conversation with one of our top doctors, is reducing the burden on our clinicians, physicians and nurses. It seems very obvious, but it made me take a step back to think about it. He said, "Nick, every year I'm being asked to do more, whether within the EMR or its new regulations or new quality metrics." He said, "I'm doing more of these outside things rather than giving care to the patients, which is why I joined the field."

So, a big challenge will be lessening that burden for the folks providing care as more requirements are added each year, which feeds into the staffing shortage. During COVID-19, people got to see that they could work from home and there was a different way of doing things and some of them simply got burnt out from everything and said, "Maybe that field is not for me anymore." So, finding a way to make these positions a little less burdensome and stressful is going to be a key piece, and I think IT will have a big role in that.

Q: Where are the best opportunities for disruption in healthcare today?

NS: I think it's in how we provide care and monitor the patients when they're not here. How can we provide care at home or in various settings outside of the hospital? I also look long term and think a great opportunity is to flip the script, almost, and have the patients responsible for their own data. So, when they come here now, everything is in our systems. We do our best security-wise, but we know we'll never be foolproof.

So, if we were to flip the model and have the patients, in some type of way, own their own data and wherever they would go, would be able to provide consent and say, "Here's my record, here's the care," and it would encompass everything that has taken place with that patient. That would take a pretty significant shift inside the company. But long term, I think that would be more secure and maybe solve some of these interoperability challenges we have with all these different systems.

Q: How is your role as a CIO evolving? How are IT teams changing?

NS: I say the CIO role is becoming more strategic, as shown in some title changes. Traditionally, you would have a CIO, but now we're seeing chief digital officers and chief innovation officers. Right now, we're being considered business partners rather than transactional leaders. And what I mean by that is that it's not building a plan to replace all the servers and PCs and implement a new tool. We're at the table now, where issues are being discussed with the rest of the leadership. And we're there with tools to say, "I think I can help you or help us." So, overall, I think we're viewed as a strategic partner rather than a transactional one these days, which I advocate for every chance I get because it just makes sense. We bring a lot of value when we're at the table and are certainly not an afterthought.

In terms of how IT teams are changing, there are many ways they're changing. Mostly, it's about how their work is changing, evident through COVID-19, with being able to work from home. You still have the traditional roles and network teams and analysts, but teams are evolving in a way that is more plugged into their support areas than in conventional times.

However, more stress is being placed on the teams, especially in healthcare, because IT is 24/7 and healthcare is 24/7. So, we have to look at how we cannot have burnout, which might be that remote work. So, everyone's evolving and COVID-19 pushed us in that direction, which is probably a good thing to start looking at how we could do things differently.

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