The healthcare sector’s need to get up to speed digitally is obvious to patients, healthcare workers and leaders in many jurisdictions. With health records housed in paper folders with general practitioners, transmission of information between providers via fax machine, and appointment bookings conducted via telephone – for an industry reliant on sophisticated technologies for treatment, the case is clear that the front and back offices of healthcare are ripe for digital transformation.

The 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse helps to show that a great number of healthcare executives believe their organizations to be on the forefront of transformation. When asked to self-identify personas related to their appetite and action in progress, one in five (20 percent) CEOs say their organizations are on the “bleeding edge” of transformation; another third or so (37 percent) are early movers; and a little more than one-quarter (27 percent) are mainstream adopters. And yet the reality is that only few executives (14 percent) give their organizations high marks for their own digitally enabled services.

Organizational transformation personas pie chart illustration

Fears over not having the capabilities – whether it be the right tools, skills and/or talent may be creating impediments or hesitation for transformation. Nearly two-thirds of CEOs (65 percent) identify the risks of technological change as barriers to innovation, followed by challenges related to complex and rapid developments in the sector (61 percent), navigating regulation and compliance (60 percent) and lack of needed skill sets (56 percent).

For Maurice van den Bosch, CEO of the OLVG Hospital Amsterdam in the Netherlands the risk-averse are looking at things backwards. “Technological change is really an accelerator that drives your future, and you need to embrace it,” he says. For example, speech recognition has replaced the manual note-taking processes for patient record documentation and digital scheduling systems have improved the quality of work at his hospital, and he expects virtual care to enhance patient access and experience.

Dr. Christian Elsner

The hackathon model of innovation

Not only is technology constantly improving, but so too are the approaches to technological discovery. Hackathons, commonly used by technology companies to facilitate innovation, have been adopted by Dr. Christian Elsner. The approach has helped support innovation by facilitating a culture that’s willing to test (and fail) in a sector that is often set in traditional ways of working and being too afraid to fail.

The hackathon approach also helps bring people to the table – from patients to colleagues within the hospital who otherwise wouldn’t interact, to representatives from industry. In one iteration, Elsner had patients help define hackathon challenges based upon their lived experiences, which then brought together staff from different disciplines and capabilities to develop solutions. There was also a marketing dividend as representatives from technology, medical device and other organizations wanted to affiliate with and participate in the innovation. “It’s very simple, you have nothing to lose in this. So, my experience is if you moderate it a little bit, then it’s always good to give people the room to think freely. It’s completely okay that a hackathon has a certain 50, 60, 80 percent of the stuff that doesn’t succeed.” For Elsner, the process of thinking innovatively and collaboratively is just as, if not more, important than the products developed during hackathons.

Dr. Christian Elsner
Chief Financial Officer
University Medical Center of Gutenberg Johannes University Mainz

When asked to gauge the impact of technology on care quality and outcomes today, CEOs rated clinical decision support systems, data supported decision-making and robotic surgery as having the highest expected impact today.

Digital technologies rated highest in terms of impact on quality and outcomes of care today

The digital transformation in support of care delivery is most immediately obvious to health leaders. Many (66 percent) expect telemedicine and other digital delivery methods to take on more importance moving forward. Closely, but less enthusiastically, more than half (59 percent) are confident that “a significant amount of diagnostics, consultations and treatment will be done digitally instead of in-person.”

Still, the inaction is notable: Slightly more than one in ten executives (11 percent) reports zero organizational investment in digital care delivery, and only a very small cohort (7 percent) can boast of “substantial” implementations to date. The vast middle cohort is either pondering or mobilizing – digital care delivery is either on their agenda (40 percent) or in their current strategies (43 percent), waiting to be executed. It’s not just patients who need to be sold on new technology either. Staff adoption plays a crucial role. To that end, Rob Webster, chief executive, South West Yorkshire Partnership Foundation Trust and lead chief executive, West Yorkshire and Harrogate Integrated Care System in the United Kingdom advises:

“You’ve got to make it easier. People love the fact that, when you introduce new technologies, it can make their clinical life easier. For instance, systems that deliver pathology results on your machine straight away and shared records where you can see what’s happened overnight with the GP… People love that sort of stuff.”

For those who worry about learning curves disrupting already-busy schedules, Webster says, “It takes less time than people think. When you give the tools to the teams with the right support, you tend to be surprised and pleased by how much improvement you can make.”

But even the most digitally advanced executives are advised to put things into perspective on the digital journey. As Webster notes, in his country, “The majority of non-face-to-face consultations have been on the telephone. We’re using 19th-century technology and calling it an improvement.”


Key takeaway

  • Healthcare needs to catch up to other sectors in leveraging and integrating digital as a means to create more sustainable, accessible and effective means of delivery.

  • Digital can provide benefits from the front office by supporting clinical interventions or the patient-provider interface to the back-office in optimizing operations.

  • The execution of a digital strategy is not solely a technical infrastructure play – it requires leadership, organizational change and training for staff in new ways of working.

How to take action

Health leaders should have a digital strategy no matter what their digital ambitions are. Given that technology is an investment, these digital strategies should have an understanding of what the business requirements are based upon (e.g. stakeholder needs), what the current state is, and what the future state looks like, and a roadmap to get there. Once digital strategies are created, execution plans should be developed to support all stakeholders in the journey – from developing new workflows and training, to operational transformation, to new patient pathways. To embark upon digital transformation, fundamental changes will also need to be made to investment agendas.