For hospitals and health systems, the past two years of Covid-19 have seen a whipsaw of crises. Digital tools have been rushed in, helping to keep clinics open while enabling innovations in patient communications as well as workforce health and remote patient monitoring. Even institutions lacking digital health strategies managed to implement tactical initiatives. Organizations with established digital strategies, meanwhile, fared better—they leveraged existing staff and tools in new ways.

Ready or not, Covid-19 shoved the healthcare system into the digital age. Patients scrambled to keep pace, racing to activate or lose out on limited care options. With the pandemic now (hopefully) ebbing, it’s worth wondering what will become of our digitally activated providers and patients. Where do we go from here?

Industry colleagues, health systems leaders and peers are all asking this question. The digital health landscape is wide and varied, as are the respective approaches to digital health. Though commonalities exist, there are even more differences—some articulated clearly, others reactive to market realities.

Answering this question requires knowing where you stand. Any health system’s digital health readiness generally falls into one of the following categories:

Wait And See

These health systems wait for the market to mature, hoping that clearer strategies emerge. However, such inaction means you’re forestalling investment and falling behind. Competitors who make even modest investments are connecting to patients and establishing stronger digital relationships.

Health systems in this group probably face revenue challenges that limit their investment capacity. Instead of acting proactively, they defer to their vendors’ preferred solutions—which they implement and hope work. They miss the benefits of proactive strategy while stuck in a cold start. Digital transformation is not flipping a switch. For a digital health solution to improve patient experiences, health systems need the focused attention of teams immersed in the space.

‘Shiny Object’ Syndrome

This group has a scattered approach to acquisition and implementation. Lacking strong central governance and a clearly articulated strategy, these health systems acquire point solutions—reacting to immediate pain points and choosing without big-picture considerations. This “grab bag” approach never delivers a holistic, patient-centered experience. Short-term fixes might address the acute pain, but they burn resources while missing the chance to improve long-term outcomes.

Tip Of The Spear

These front-runners are digital evangelists, viewing patient experience broadly and investing strategically. They’re also building “organizational change” muscles that drive systemic change. They invest strategically in new solutions, accepting that several might fail.

Which category describes your organization?

If you’re a “wait and see” or “shiny object” organization, pay attention. Inaction—or just reaction—can’t replace strategy. You must set a course for digital health. In doing so, consider the following:

Organizational Considerations

  • More than just technology. Digital health is more about adapting and improving clinical workflows than technology. Don’t view digital health as just a tech or marketing play; it requires organizational readiness to change and adopt new ways of caring for patients. Identify operational change agents and clinical champions to establish a team owning direction and implementation. Technology changes must win hearts and minds; otherwise, they will fail.
  • Digital health is complementary. Your digital health strategy should derive from your institution’s strategic priorities. Whatever your institution’s focus, your digital health approach will evolve, and today’s technology decisions could have a long-standing impact.

Technology Considerations

  • Extent patient identity into digital identity. All health systems possess master patient indexes to disambiguate patient identities, but few extend that identity into external digital health tools. Asking patients to create another digital identity limits adoption. The Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) shows promise for identity interoperability. Until TEFCA-enabled tools are widespread, extend your patient identities with OAuth2 and your patient portal.
  • Providers are consumers too. Your existing digital investments gave your providers access to tools. A robust single-sign-on program will help third-party tools gain adoption. Extend provider accounts and identities into the third-party tool with SSO and make it launchable via the EMR.
  • Where is the patient’s digital home? Phone, websites, medical apps, patient portals—patients don’t know where to start. Your front door must be obvious—either your website or your patient portal, or both. Have a single point of entry to avoid confusion.
  • Data integration strategy. Getting data in and out from third parties is critical and an important risk mitigation step. Data-hungry digital tools can consume and produce vast quantities of information. Have a systematic approach to data integration. Consider developing several categories of integration with repeatable processes to minimize the effort and streamline compliance.
  • Measuring success. This is another consideration where your use of multiple tools requires a systematic approach. Understand how patients are interacting with your platform and adjust your thinking accordingly. To optimize this learning, create a systematic way to collect, understand and interpret user behavior patterns, and use it as guidance for the future.
  • Messaging. In addition to the patient messaging within your patient portal, other digital health tools can message patients. Coordinate messages, tone, voice and brand to ensure communications have more signal than noise. Formulate a consistent and standard approach, and make vendors comply.
  • Start at the end. Before implementing a new tool, walk through the “turn down” scenario: What’s your backout/switch-out plan? When a tool fails or expires, how will you free yourself of its grip—both contractually and technologically? Do you have the data captured to ease switching? Develop your backout/switch-out plan by starting at the end and planning to swap out in the future. Even if the answers aren’t great, the exercise is useful.

Pick A Strategy And Advance It

Like nature, digital strategy abhors a vacuum. It’s important that you avoid sitting on the sidelines; the market is moving quickly. Form an opinion on how digital health can help advance strategic imperatives and move forward. Start now with a thoughtful approach, consider risks, keep the focus on both patient and provider experience, and manage data and identity, and you’ll be on your way to a sustainable digital health strategy.

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