Few industries have experienced more profound digital transformation during the pandemic than healthcare. From telemedicine to the historic fast-tracking of vaccine development, it is clear that technology continues to drive medical innovation.
Early in November, 2021, I participated in the HealthIMPACT Live Fall Forum, a virtual event co-hosted by Google, which included some of the brightest minds in technology and healthcare. Industry leaders from university programs, research centers, technology companies, hospitals, and other organizations came together to discuss how to best take advantage of rapidly advancing technologies in this time of unprecedented stress on global health.
I was surprised and energized by what I learned over the course of three days of panels and breakout sessions, especially a panel I had the privilege of leading, CIOs Speak: Best Investments I Made During the Pandemic.
Joining me on this panel were Lisa Stump, SVP of Information Systems & CIO of Yale New Haven Health System; Steve Hess, CIO of UCHealth (Colorado); and Mark Eimer, SVP, Associate CIO & CTO of Hackensack Meridian Health.
If I were to sum up my take-aways from my panel with these resourceful and passionate industry leaders, I’d divide them into two categories:
1. Pre-pandemic investments in remote work technologies paid off big
Again and again, our panelists were grateful for having invested early in common-sense remote work technologies, like virtual desktops, cloud-based collaboration tools, and telemedicine solutions. While these investments weren’t made specifically to prepare for an emergency, they proved to be powerfully forward-thinking.
UCHealth recently reported the changing volume of remote patient contacts within their network of 12 hospitals and 1000+ clinics. Their data confirms what the industry knows anecdotally—the pandemic drove an instantaneous, dramatic increase in remote medicine. But their ability to scale in this way depended on having their remote medicine solutions in place already.
According to Steve Hess, “One of the common themes during the pandemic is that those organizations that invested in their digital strategy, and frankly intertwined their digital strategy with their overall organizational strategy, were probably ready for this. Our virtual urgent care visits were thirteen a day in January, 2020. In February, there were 250 a day. We went from 1000 virtual visits a month to 77,000 virtual visits overnight. But we didn’t actually build anything. We just scaled what we already had.”
At Hackensack Meridian, facilitating a remote workforce, including IT and administrative staff, became just as important as facilitating remote patient care.
“COVID was the great external transformational factor that literally pushed us into all sorts of areas that we were probably dipping our toe in, but we weren’t really sure if work-from-home was going to allow for productivity to maintain its levels,” Mark Eimer said. “When the CEO said, ‘everyone go home,’ we had to pivot quickly. We had the technologies, but we hadn’t fully worked through all the use cases or really developed how we were going to use it, and everything was really done on the fly.”
Hackensack Meridian’s prior investment in Google Workspace was an essential part of this one-day pivot to an at-home workforce.
My takeaway: No one can predict what the next emergency will be or what specific technologies will be required, but investments you make now in common-sense tools that facilitate organizational flexibility will maximize the likelihood you’ll be prepared for whatever comes next.
2. It really is about the people
Our conversation took an unexpected turn when each of our panelists insisted that, while technology was important, it was really the people in their organizations that made the difference. It was the creativity and commitment of their IT teams that enabled each hospital to scale their core technology investments and apply them to the challenges of the pandemic.
“We were all collectively fighting this invisible war, and it was incredible seeing our doctors and nurses putting their lives on the line frankly every day,” said Hess. “Our IT teams were able to come together and create this huge community outreach, almost a public health service. The creativity and innovation and work ethics of our teams cannot be overstated. We’re very, very proud of how the IT team stood up.”
The demonstrated value of great teams in times of emergency, combined with recent national staffing shortages, shine a light on the need for technology leaders to take care of their workforce. Flexible working locations and schedules are part of it, as is increased focus on the emotional and behavioral health of IT staff.
There’s a term common in healthcare—”operate at the top of your license.” For clinicians, this means practicing medicine to the full extent of your specialization. But IT staff are also highly skilled and want to exercise creativity in solving hard problems. Cloud-based infrastructures and AI-driven automation tools can reduce mundane tasks and improve employee satisfaction.
For example, for Lisa Stump, supporting workers meant leveraging AI to help tackle high volumes in call centers. “Our ability to move to real-time data has truly revolutionized the way that meetings are conducted and decisions are made here in the organization,” said Stump, “We introduced bot technologies to help answer some of the very frequently asked questions that were coming in, that allowed our people to spend time on harder questions.”
Creativity is key: Eimer’s tasks, for instance, included setting up a vaccination center in a railway station. “There was a lot of scurrying around, and a lot of praying, and a lot of hoping and a lot of ‘McGuivering’ going on.” But he was proud to report that a combination of technology and ingenuity got it done.
My takeaway: Now is the time for IT leaders to powerfully advocate for increased investment in their staff. Get the right people, take care of them, and empower them with the tools they need to “operate at the top of their license.”
It’s a new era in healthcare, a time when IT departments are being hailed as heroes alongside nursing staff and administrators. As a three-time Google Cloud Partner of the Year, SADA understands how important it is to bring partners and healthcare organizations together around shared, win-win technology solutions. And we agree, it really does come down to people. While there certainly are challenges ahead, I am convinced that the right people, combined with the right technology, will be entirely up to the task.
About Michael Ames
Michael Ames is Sr. Director for Healthcare and Life Sciences at SADA, with the mission to enable the healthcare and life sciences industry to improve lives through innovation on Google Cloud.
Prior to joining SADA, Michael led technology and innovation strategy for the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine, where his team launched a massive, multi-institutional, enterprise health data warehouse on Google Cloud Platform—the first of its kind on any public cloud.
Michael has spent over 20 years building systems and teams that manage and analyze healthcare data. He holds degrees in Business and Biomedical Informatics and has been a leader in tiny startups, major multinationals, and academia.