May 23 2022

‘Absolutely a Priority’: How Digital Transformation Is Taking Off in Healthcare

Healthcare providers are embracing agility and consumer-oriented philosophies at an accelerated rate.

At Southcoast Health, a community-based health system operating in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, IT and clinical leaders raced to stand up new solutions in the spring of 2020. As with most healthcare providers, telehealth became a mission-critical service at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organization also had to find ways to track testing and implement new triage practices.

In effect, the pandemic forced Southcoast to dramatically accelerate its digital transformation efforts, says Jim Feen, senior vice president and chief digital and information officer.

“We could have spent a year trying to devise an emergency department triage process that kept people safe, but we didn’t have the luxury of time,” Feen says. “In a span of three to four days, using Microsoft Teams carts on wheels, we were able to develop advanced workflows that we may never have designed otherwise. And we saw that sort of acceleration across service lines. We were working together collaboratively through a command center, and the necessities of the moment really spawned a lot of innovation.”

Natalie Schibell, senior analyst for healthcare at Forrester, says that digital transformation in healthcare “accelerated by at least a decade” during the pandemic.

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In addition to telehealth, she says, healthcare organizations rapidly rolled out solutions around remote patient monitoring, electronic health record systems and hospital-at-home programs.

The pace of digital transformation is expected to continue to accelerate as incumbent healthcare providers face competition from retail healthcare options offered by pharmacy chains, Schibell adds.

“It’s incredibly disruptive,” she says. “Now, not only can you go to these stores to get your over-the-counter ­medications, but you can get your vaccine and see a medical provider. Digital transformation is absolutely a priority if healthcare providers want to keep up with the convenience and investment in technology that retail health is participating in right now.”

Service Centers Transform the Patient Experience

In December 2021, Southcoast opened its new patient service center, merging a first wave of 37 small call centers into one operation with a single dedicated management team and a suite of new technologies to support the operation.

Previously, Feen says, Southcoast’s fragmented approach to call center operations had unintended consequences that contributed to inconsistent performance and patient experience. Service metrics were not met consistently. In some areas, only 30 to 40 percent of calls were answered within the first 30 seconds.

Jim Feen
We knew we needed to perform better for our patients and for our health system.”

Jim Feen Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer, Southcoast Health

“We knew we needed to perform better for our patients and for our health system,” Feen says. “For the early-adopter clinics that are supported by the new service center, we saw immediate performance increases that more than doubled performance.”

The service center relies on a number of tools from Avaya, including workforce management, speech analytics, call recording and callback assist, as well as Epic EHR integration that places the patient in the center of every call.

Digital transformation is helping Southcoast improve consumer and provider experiences. “Part of our mission with the tools, through automation and an attempt to simplify processes, is to help counteract staff burnout that has become pervasive in healthcare,” Feen says.

Expanding Patient Access with Digital-First Strategies

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the largest children’s hospital in the U.S., IT and business leaders have made significant strides to enable online scheduling and check-in.

Starting in 2017, executive and ­physician leadership established an ­initiative to improve patient scheduling and access, which cemented a foundation that enabled Texas Children’s to accelerate digital transformation during the pandemic.

In March 2020, Texas Children’s stood up a COVID-19 command center to respond to patient needs, recognizing care would have to be delivered differently to meet patients in their communities.

EXPLORE: How the shift to digitally streamlined workflow helps improve care.

“During the pandemic, our families wanted less face-to-face interaction, and we were trying to provide a touchless experience,” says Roula Zoghbi Smith, assistant vice president for surgical practices and Texas Children’s Heart Center. “Families want to be able to schedule their appointment when it’s convenient for them.”

In 2021, the hospital scheduled more than 1 million appointments online, with more than 700,000 patients accessing scheduling and care via Epic’s MyChart patient portal — a 55 percent increase in users since 2019.

To support operational demands and collaboration, Texas Children’s implemented Microsoft Teams over an eight-month period from 2019 to 2020. Teams enabled greater collaboration and communication across employee and physician groups via video, text chat and Teams channels.

Standardizing and Strategizing with Digital Health Technologies

John Hamm, vice president of IT at Texas Children’s Hospital, notes that effective digital transformation requires more than just the latest technology. During 2019 and 2020, the organization rolled out agile methodology training to IT leaders and executives, preparing them to embrace rapid change.

“We delivered 40 percent more ­milestone goals during the same time, compared with previous years, using agile methodologies,” Hamm says. “We went from sitting in meetings and looking at target dates three or four months out to releasing new technology every two weeks.”

John Hamm
We went from sitting in meetings and looking at target dates three or four months out to releasing new technology every two weeks.”

John Hamm Vice President of IT, Texas Children’s Hospital

At University of Utah Health, Donna Roach joined as CIO during the middle of the pandemic. At the time, the ­organization’s digital strategy covered telehealth almost exclusively, but Roach led an effort to create a new digital transformation roadmap. The plan contains six “swim lanes,” including goals such as digital outreach and improving the consumer experience.

University of Utah Health has worked to standardize its telehealth offerings, is standing up a Spanish-language patient portal and is exploring how to better integrate internal resources with patient internet searches.

“When I came on board, some people bristled at the term ‘consumer experience,’” Roach says. “They said that it sounded like we were talking about Costco. And I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with Costco.’ I realized that I had to do some internal selling of the concepts before I ran with implementation.”

Meeting Future Healthcare Challenges with Digital Transformation

At Texas Children’s, Smith describes the transition to agile development as both a “challenge” and a “big cultural shift.” But, she adds, the hospital was able to navigate the process by starting with small pilots and designating executive champions for various components of the digital transformation journey. “Because we had leadership support, we were able to remove barriers really quickly,” she says.

Strategic foresight and investment in a digital foundation, coupled with a strong partnership between IT and operations, has leapfrogged the organization’s ability to schedule and care for patients during the pandemic. Agile methodologies and strong collaboration across leadership will continue to support Texas Children’s ability to provide leading care to the community.

LEARN MORE: Find out how digital-first strategies are shaping healthcare.

Feen predicts that Southcoast Health and other providers will continue to implement digital transformation to meet future challenges, including the so-called Great Resignation.

“The pressures to innovate are going to be very much the same going forward, if not at an increased rate,” Feen says. “And really, it’s what we should have been doing all along. This is our opportunity to capitalize on the moment.”

Illustration by LJ Davids

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