Aug. 6, 2020 | InBrief

Understanding the role of technology in health information systems

IT is about creating the foundation of tech systems. Adopting and acting on this perspective is the key to recovering the value of past IT investments.

Understanding the role of technology in health information systems

Imagine you met with your financial advisor, decided to make a large investment, and didn’t hear anything from him or her again until your next appointment. What if there were unforeseen market shifts and the institution you relied on to help maintain your financial health reached out to tell you something had happened and that you needed to schedule an appointment with someone else to find out what it was? 

In healthcare, we’ve almost come to expect unilateral communication and seemingly disconnected experiences, even within a single health system. While this is not always the case, it shouldn’t be anywhere near the norm—and addressing it for the benefit of patients, clinicians, staff, and even employer groups and payers doesn’t have to break the bank.

In fact, our position is that many health systems already have much of the technology needed to connect operational capabilities to experiences and drive better outcomes for all involved.  

Immense value lies waiting to be derived from the millions of dollars health systems have previously invested in technology. Realizing that value is a matter of shifting focus away, to some extent, from tech features and capabilities themselves and onto the overall human experience that those features and capabilities need to create. What’s needed is a digital mindset that meets the patient where they are and guides them along their care journey, not the perfect algorithm to establish a scientifically accurate ED wait time. That’s IT, and what we need is digital. Specifically, digital unification. 

Digital unification is a process of improving experiences and creating connections between various systems and technologies, all while ensuring that those experiences translate to value for your organization and its constituents. It’s a matter of forming deliberate connections on the surface of your underlying technologies. 

Digital is not IT: The future of digital health systems 

Being “digital” is not only the path to improved patient experiences and sustainable, cost-saving processes, but also means deriving the full extent of the value of IT investments you’ve likely already made before you even begin to worry about aiming new tech at old problems. 

A simple way of thinking about “digital” is that it’s about humanizing technology, whereas IT is about creating (and maintaining) a foundation of technology systems. Obviously, these are inherently related concepts, but rescuing them from their usual synonymity is a worthwhile step toward the development of holistic healthcare experiences.  

While that may sound like semantics, the primary reasons for this distinction are tangible: cost and viability. Health systems have invested large sums of money in IT but have yet to derive the value of those investments, largely due to incomplete or ineffective visions for the experiences those investments need to create and support. Much of this can be traced to the common challenges to those investments’ viability: provider burnout with EMR systems, a transactional (rather than relational) patient experience, difficulty stabilizing revenues through risk-based contracts, limited analytics and reporting, and poor sharing of public and community health information, to name a few.  

Together, these factors invoke a sense of sunk infrastructural costs for systems that are only nominally related to actual experiences. In other words, there’s an outer operational and human layer under which past investments in modalities and capabilities sit, and the two are difficult to connect. 

The value of digital transformation in healthcare 

Contrary to conventional belief, the value of these infrastructural and transactional IT investments can be recovered, and you can turn your underlying capabilities into tangible, cost-saving, and value-creating experiences that enhance patient and clinician retention and acquisition. This is what it means to be digital.  

This is by no means accomplished overnight or with the flip of a switch. It starts with a question that is rarely asked: How can engagement be maximized for all constituents in way that creates sustainable financial value and improved outcomes and experiences

Digital unification is our answer to this question, and it can be achieved by following four basic principles: 

Don’t rip-and-replace or layer new tech on old problems; create the right connectors for what you already have, based on an understanding of the experiences you’re trying to create.

Having the right cooks in the kitchen (and keeping that kitchen small enough to be nimble and collaborative) is essential to a human-centered design methodology aimed at categorizing, prioritizing, and creatively approaching business problems.

Make the transition manageable and your goals modest and achievable; iteration emphasizes reframing problems from the user perspective and rapidly prototyping and testing to achieve value-add solutions and more efficient, faster delivery.

Value will be recovered through the generation of investible capital to help you fund further digital unification projects while consistently and repeatedly proving the ROI of your initiatives and opening up pathways to creative new solutions.

Bringing it all together with digital unification 

When the technology doesn’t support the need for improved stakeholder experiences, it’s unlikely that the injection of a new system or set of features is going to achieve that end on its own. What will help you get there, however, is digital unification of the systems and features you already have—transitioning, that is, from IT to digital.  

Is your health system unlocking the capabilities you've invested so much in to improve every aspect of the experience patients and providers have with your organization? If not, you have the opportunity to not only change the familiar cost dynamics around IT investments, but also to positively affect your organization’s growth and outcomes. The future of healthcare lies along this path to value recovery, and while it is a long road, the foundation and course can be established quickly if the four principles above are followed.  

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