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The evolution of healthcare CIO top priorities  

Over the past few years, the traditional roles and responsibilities of healthcare CIOs have evolved significantly, segmenting into numerous entities and unique personas, such as Chief Data Officer, Chief Analytics Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, and Chief Transformation Officer. This shift also reflects the changing CIO top priorities. 

While largely accelerated by the pandemic and rising patient expectations, the rise of digital transformation in healthcare has sparked a new shift in leadership structure and individual priorities.

What does this shift mean for hospitals and health systems, and what is the greater impact these evolving roles and priorities have on the patient experience

In a recent WELL Health webinar, Meg Aranow, Senior Vice President and Platform Evangelist at WELL Health, explored this fascinating shift and the effect it has had on the industry with three leading healthcare IT experts: 

  • Joel Vengco, Chief Information & Digital Officer, Hartford Healthcare
  • Sue Schade, Principal, StarBridge Advisors
  • Raymond Lowe, Chief Information Officer, AltaMed Services

What this shift in the healthcare CIO role means 

The role of the healthcare CIO is changing – and quickly. Once strictly a leader in technology, CIOs are now stepping into more strategic positions, with new responsibilities revolving around digitization, patient experience, and innovation. 

The evolution of healthcare CIOs highlights: 

Importance of partnership

After leaving Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2012, Sue Schade, Principal at StarBridge Advisors, experienced five different organizations – leading as interim CIO for four of them. Seeing plenty of change over those ten years, especially in light of the digital transformation era, Sue noted: “The roles just continue to bifurcate,” segmenting into new unique positions. While roles and responsibilities vary by organization and the individual, it’s really about identifying how much each person can take on and how ready they are to take on certain responsibilities outlined by the organization.  

Regardless of one’s position and other new existing roles, the evolving roles and responsibilities exist for the good of the organization. As Schade emphasized, it’s about “the importance of partnership” and nurturing and building upon those relationships. To make headway in an organization’s goals, leaders must work together as partners rather than opponents. 

Change management is key

Change management means focusing on culture. More specifically, it’s about fostering a culture of positivity and learning. As Joel Vengco, Chief Information & Digital Officer at Hartford Healthcare, put it: “We have to be out there collaborating and co-creating. We’re asked to do things that really are moving the organization to work differently…it’s really about changing the way we deliver care and engage with patients. It just so happens we’re at the forefront of a digital transformation.”

Health system CIOs and their counterparts are squarely in the middle of this transformation, so culture, organizational development, and operational modeling are now all factors associated with the job. While CIOs may not be the center of it all, they are uniquely positioned to act as both a facilitator and collaborator. 

In agreement with Vengco, Ray Lowe, Chief Information Officer at AltaMed Services, commented: “If you go back 10 years ago, a lot of the CIO role would be more kind of back-office…now we need to be sensitive to people’s needs, pivoting organizations…We can influence and drive what’s happening from a technology perspective and we can grow staff from a help desk into a network, into an application, into a training, into a project perspective.” 

It’s all about the people in health systems

As Lowe highlighted, it truly comes down to the people: “Today we understand the systems, we understand how they come together, we understand the intricacies. We also understand the opportunities. And when you look at any type of solution, it’s really 85% people and about 15% technology and process workflow.”

Health system CIOs cannot forget about the IT staff either, especially in a time when staff burnout and the Great Resignation persists across all industries. It’s important to be sensitive to how the staff is feeling about the evolving changes in leadership roles and how groups can work together effectively for the greater good of the organization, Schade suggested. 

Healthcare CIO top priorities over the next 24 months 

As the digital transformation era surges on, so do the priorities of hospital and health system CIOs. According to the panel of three healthcare IT experts, numerous shifting priorities are taking precedence over the next 12-24 months, including: 

Patient engagement strategies

At a time when technology solutions are now in the hands of consumers, health system CIOs must continue to develop and iterate on patient engagement strategies that reach a variety of populations – when and where consumers need it. By incorporating automation, digital technologies, analytics, and data, CIOs can drive real change in the way providers engage with patients

IT operating model

Creating and fostering a strong IT infrastructure that can not only support digitization but can take it to the next level in the future is critical, suggested Vengco. It’s important to first outline your organization’s current assets and then form a data and digital strategy that supports its future visions and goals from there. Schade reiterated that an IT organization’s success is “so much about operational – it’s operationalizing and getting everybody aligned around a strategy” and then leveraging available tools to improve the patient experience. 

Patient-centered care

There are constantly evolving opportunities in terms of how and where we engage the patient. In today’s world, this means expanding care beyond the four walls of a hospital and into the home. Health system CIOs have the opportunity to build assets like a digital agenda, analytics capabilities, and engagement strategies that are anchored toward personalized, coordinated care for each individual. 

Access to care and health equity

At the root of patient-centered care is access to care. From the CIO perspective, health systems should identify “digital deserts” and look to utilize technology to expand care access for low-income and underserved populations – all while addressing quality outcomes. While we’re making steady progress in this area, there is still a ways to go, suggested Lowe.

Data management

The underpinning of all of these priorities lies in data, data alignment, and data integration, according to Lowe. One major focus for healthcare CIOs in the digital transformation era should be to improve data collection and unlock data value in unique ways. To personalize healthcare experiences to individuals, leaders must collect and surface data about individuals that are both representative and equitable.

Build vs. Buy: Healthcare CIOs value a “frictionless” experience 

In light of the digital transformation era, CIOs continue to approach build versus buy scenarios regularly. One major priority in this decision-making process lies in creating a frictionless experience for both patients and providers alike. “The basic definition of friction is the resistance of one object moving over the other,” according to Vengco. “Two objects can really create friction.” 

The current philosophy many hospital and health systems CIOs now have is around centralizing capabilities on a single core platform, such as the EHR, to add value and avoid friction. When deciding whether to build or buy, CIOs should determine whether the solution can truly deliver something that’s pleasurable and can do the work, while not causing unnecessary friction. Vengco refers to this as the “basis for the tech cascade” – asking questions regarding a solution’s complexity, integration capabilities, and if it can be leveraged immediately.

According to Schade, “the build is in the innovation space.” While many leaders continue to focus on a core ecosystem to build upon, she mentioned one recent change: a greater sense of openness in regards to thinking of platforms as opposed to systems. “It’s okay to have a lot of different vendor systems in as long as they’re integrated and you think of them from a platform perspective compared to when we were focusing on [a] core EHR, a core ERP.” 

At the end of the day, it’s all about data liberation, Lowe suggested. “When you look at these core systems, it’s really about being able to take that data…and value [it] in a different way that hasn’t been thought of before.” Many “forward-thinking CIOs” are looking at what’s happening on the data front and seeing how to get more predictive, according to Lowe. This data can then be utilized by providers to enable a greater patient experience. 

The healthcare CIO perspective – A final piece of advice to vendors

As digital transformation in healthcare evolves, it’s critical for vendors to be straightforward, simple, and clear in their messaging, according to all three IT leaders. Invest in R&D, and make sure to differentiate your product or solution from competitors and others in the market to establish a frame of reference. 

Another key factor vendors should think twice about is the design. Understand the solution as it relates to different segments of the population and different systems, and focus on the humanness and equity behind it, including education, socioeconomic, and race.

Listen to the full webinar, here.