Guest Column | January 14, 2021

Health System CIO Priorities—Changes Ahead Due To Covid-19

By Peyman Zand, VP Advisory Services, CereCore

Change Ahead

In February of 2020, one month before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, health system CIOs participated in a College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME) survey to identify their top IT priorities and barriers to progress. A summary of this CHIME survey revealed that optimizing EHR/EMR services was the top IT priority, followed by patient engagement and consumer technologies—telemedicine, interoperability and analytics. Operating costs pressure was cited as the biggest barrier to making progress with these various health IT initiatives.

Then, on March 13, 2020, Covid-19 was declared a national emergency and there was a sharp pivot in priorities for the entire healthcare industry, including health system CIOs. New IT priorities emerged in the wake of Covid-19: establish a remote workforce, rapidly adopt telehealth and identify new ways to address the drastic drop in hospital operating margins.

My own experience from CereCore’s CIO cohort and a subsequent CHIME focus group paint a new picture of healthcare IT priorities headed into 2021.

How CIO priorities changed as a result of Covid-19

As healthcare moves from adversity to advancement, what are the biggest CIO priorities now? What has changed since the CHIME survey ten months ago? We recently gleaned insights from a cohort of acting and consulting CIOs who identified seven recalibrated priorities:

  • Expanded telemedicine expectations
  • A need for real-time predictive information and strong analytics for decision-making
  • Updated business continuity plans and business impact analysis (BIA)
  • Improved remote access capabilities, security and adding eWork devices for short- and long-term remote teams
  • Enhanced remote patient monitoring
  • Accelerating business process automation
  • Implementing new and future initiatives with already constrained budgets

While some CIOs said it’s early to identify all the Covid-19 challenges and predict outcomes in this time of uncertainty, a strategic approach to addressing these new priorities is paramount. The group whittled the list down to three specific categories for healthcare organizations to guide strategic plans going into 2021.  

  • EHR/EMR optimization
  • Data analytics
  • Patient engagement/customer technologies

EHR challenges, business continuity and infrastructure

Optimizing and maintaining the EHR is the single largest investment in IT. And the pandemic has served to increase our reliance on EHR systems, highlighting their value in healthcare. With our nation approaching $30 trillion in debt, CIOs are concerned that sufficient funding will not be available to sustain their business.  They feel pressure to maximize adoption and efficiency while doing more with finite resources. This includes making the EHR as user friendly as possible for caregivers, connecting health information for interoperability, and optimizing workflows for analytics and operational efficiency to support a remote workforce.

“When traditional channels and operations are impacted by the outbreak, the value of digital channels, products and operations becomes immediately obvious. This is a wake-up call to organizations that focus on daily operational needs at the expense of investing in digital business and long-term resilience,” says Sandy Shen, senior research director at Gartner.

In 2021, CIOs have an opportunity to shift from an operational mindset to a strategic approach to advance technology, increase access across health networks, improve analytics, manage infrastructure costs and use data-driven decisions to ensure business continuity.

Analytics go into overdrive

Most health systems were challenged to forecast cases or supply chain needs from predictive analytics during the early days of Covid-19. This experience led to spiked prioritization by health system CIOs of advanced analytics systems to not only micromanage operations during the pandemic, but also move their organizations forward in 2021.

Definitive decisions regarding strategic directions are difficult to make amid unpredictable change. Insights gleaned from advanced analytics are essential components to ensure a strategic versus operational focus in the year ahead. Finally, Covid-19 challenges also served as a catalyst for improving patient engagement and quality of care.

Patient engagement drives the future

Patients’ expectations have changed significantly since the outbreak of the pandemic. Many have embraced the convenience of telehealth visits and online communications with caregivers. And technology will certainly continue to transform the patient experience post Covid-19.

To meet evolving expectations, healthcare organizations need to strengthen their network infrastructure and evaluate all patient access points from the beginning steps of registration and insurance verification to final billing, payments and post-acute care coordination. And additional investments in the security space are essential to ensure each patient interaction meets privacy, security and regulatory requirements.

I also foresee an IT impact in the integration and interfaces needed to coordinate improved access to care across the continuum, such as real-time interactions with specialists, ancillary services and remote monitoring devices. These strategies will boost patient engagement and pave the way to profitable growth, resilience and business continuity for years to come.

Key Takeaways

  • EHR optimization, patient engagement and analytics are top focus areas for health system CIOs going into 2021.
  • Covid-19 has served as a catalyst for change. Reprioritize IT initiatives to drive patient engagement and operational integrity.
  • Definitive decisions regarding strategic directions are difficult to make amid unpredictable change. Use analytics to ensure a strategic versus operational CIO focus.