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The COVID-19 pandemic didn't change the technology strategy for most healthcare organizations. Instead, it forced them to take a quantum leap in their care delivery roadmaps.
Claus Jensen, chief digital officer and CTO at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said healthcare CIOs should figure out ways to ensure those changes stick around, pushing the industry toward hybrid care. Jensen, who took on the leadership role in October 2019, describes hybrid care as digital and physical experiences fused together to provide flexible, accessible patient-centric care. Health IT leaders will be tasked with stitching data and applications together to provide a seamless experience.
In this Q&A, Jensen, a panelist on the virtual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium's "Rapid Shift in Talent and Knowledge Acquisition" panel, describes how the pandemic has propelled healthcare in the direction of hybrid care, why he thinks in terms of "next normal" rather than "new normal," and what CIOs can do to start thinking in those terms.
What are some of the most significant ways COVID-19 has affected healthcare?
Claus Jensen: What it changed mostly is our sense of time. … It compressed the timeline for forces in healthcare that would've happened anyway. Most of what's happening now is just happening on a timeline that's two or three times faster than we thought it would be.
Hybrid care. [I'm] not talking telemedicine. Telemedicine is easy. … We did it on a dime overnight when we went from 2% telemedicine to 60%. What's hard is to put together a holistic, integrated care experience across inpatient, outpatient, on the move and at home -- and not lose any of the richness of that experience from the perspective of what we do to keep people healthy and cure them. That's harder. And it's all about logistics, orchestration and a combined experience. It would've happened in a three-to-five-year timeframe -- now it's happening in six to 12 months.
The shift left in the care continuum -- pre-disease. We talked about it for decades. How do you meaningfully deliver an experience that is scalable pre-disease? It's all about giving people guidance. There are 1.5 billion healthcare-related searches on Google every day. I don't think they always get good information back. So how do you build a better way of guiding people so they can get all their questions answered and make meaningful choices around what they should or shouldn't do with the risks they have? That would've happened anyway, but on a 10-year timeframe. Now we have a couple of years to figure out how do all these digital channels come together in a new way that's not necessarily about treatment, but about advice.
Finally, there's the fact that we're collecting a lot more data because more things are digital. What can we do with that from a research perspective and how can we push the boundary of the science of health?
During the pandemic, CIOs had to make changes to adapt to this new normal. What changes will outlast the pandemic and why?
Jensen: All of them, but I don't use the words 'new normal' internally. …. I talk about the 'next normal.' There's a subtle but important difference [between those two phrases]. 'New normal' implies we'll get to a point that [will become] the new normal. If you use the phrase 'next normal,' you're signaling there's always a next. I think we're in a period where, for a very long number of years, we'll be in a next normal [state] … because we're on a learning journey and trying to figure out: What does healthcare need to look like?
How do you get attuned to the next normal? You've got to put out your feelers and sensors and become consumer-centric in a way that perhaps healthcare hasn't quite internalized. We tend to think consumer-centric means it's all about taking care of people who have disease. That's not wrong, and we still need to do that because that's the core of what the healthcare industry does, but it's just not sufficient anymore. We have to start trying to figure out what are the other needs that are unmet and what can we do about it.
Where do healthcare CIOs get the skills they need for the 'next normal?' For example, how do CIOs attain sufficient competency for using AI in an environment where machine learning is becoming central to IT systems?
Jensen: For specific technologies, you can take a class for, you can read an article, you can read a book. What you can't read … is what are you going to do with it. Standing up AI technology is relatively easy, understanding where it is and isn't practically applicable and what to do with it is a fair bit harder.
Companies are urged to use technology to gain competitive advantage, but how attainable is this?
Jensen: It's very attainable. You can expand your reach, you can expand the quality of your products and services -- certainly in healthcare, but in any industry. As we move into not digital-only, but digital-first for some things and people-first for other things, we'll see an environment [emerge] in five years where science fiction becomes reality. This fusion of devices and software and smart technology and people that seamlessly meshes around us, ambient technology that's always present, the ability to use voice-based interactions -- that's all going to happen. It's not going to happen in two decades; it's going to happen in five years.
How is the role of the healthcare CIO going to have to shift to the 'next normal'?
Jensen: You need to keep an open mind; you need to have an affinity for learning. If you accept the fact that the world of the future, the next normal, is going to be different than the world we know, you have to be very comfortable with uncertainty.
Then it comes down to three types of people: One type is -- call them the toolmakers, the people who build the tools for everybody else -- also called the technology team. You have to figure out what does that team look like, how does it work, what's the kind of talent you need to have, and how do you mix the understanding of your business, in this case healthcare, with what they bring to the table?
The second type is anybody who works in your organization. In my case it would be the researchers, physicians, nurses, office and care coordinators, staff who makes sure, say, that the cafeteria works. It doesn't always matter who it is, all of these people have needs as employees, but they also need better tools to make sure we ultimately deliver the product, which is keeping people healthy.
The third type is everybody we're trying to serve -- patients, caregivers, family members, loved ones. That's about expectations, and the expectations of healthcare in today's environment are not exactly spectacular. We're beginning to see expectations bleed over from other industries, but how do you create a trust model where people actually believe that, yes, it's possible as a healthcare institution to meaningfully deliver a different kind of experience?
Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington Star-News and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.