Results from the 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse demonstrate, the case for transformation in healthcare is apparent. It’s also imminent. Emerging from the pandemic, health leaders’ agendas are full – with priorities to address delivery model reforms, digital enablement and workforce planning. Each of these requires leaders to make difficult decisions and convincing cases – to make investment, to guide their people through change, and to work with stakeholders to help make it happen.

How quickly, then, can we expect to see meaningful change in the sector? According to 79 percent of CEOs, within the next three years, nearly all aspects of care delivery models will have significantly transformed. If history is any indication, beyond shocks like pandemics – transformation is a much slower, deliberate process. Comparing this high ambition to the current state of a key enabler such as shifting to digital care delivery – where it sits in their strategies with 43 percent, on their agenda with 39 percent, and is non-existent in their plans among 11 percent. Only 7 percent have implemented this shift today. That shift from strategy to execution can be a long journey; further still is the shift from agenda to strategic imperative to execution.

But who exactly is struggling? Forty-four percent of healthcare executives describe their organizations as mainstream, late adopters and laggards when it comes to embracing new technology. For these, four in nine CEOs, reform is something that happens to them rather than is something they proactively plan for, adopt and action. While not everyone is expected to be an innovator, late adopters and laggards are far less optimistic in their ability to deliver on transformation elements such as shifting care into the community, focusing on prevention, adopting digital, aligning incentives to outcomes, and embodying a patient-centered paradigm.

Even the most conservatively-minded CEOs must take up the standard and lead the charge for change. Change is not a unanimous consent process, and there will be resistance from within, as Dr. Maurice van den Bosch, CEO of OLVG Hospital Amsterdam in the Netherlands explains with an example from his organization: “To be honest, 10 percent of the employees are embracing technological change, digital transformation or transformation in general. Then, I think, 10 percent are really blocking it. And then 80 percent are somewhere in between. This is a leadership opportunity. I try to use the first movers to convince the rest of the groups to participate in the change.”

This last point is key. To effect meaningful change in their organizations—and more broadly across the industry—healthcare leaders must create coalitions that stretch beyond just their individual leadership and fellow executives to drive change from the top. The role of the health leader is to inspire and empower their people to lead change from the bottom-up and top-down.

Dr. Maurice van den Bosch

If you want to make transformation happen, it needs to be owned by the medical specialists themselves. They need to be part of it. One of the cornerstones for the pace of the transformation is to get the medical specialists on board as owners of the change process.

Dr. Maurice van den Bosch
CEO OLVG Hospital Amsterdam

Finally, CEOs should re-examine conventional practices and business models in search of novel solutions to long-standing problems. While change appears to be the constant – the status quo seems to be the easiest path forward. To nudge organizations out of inertia and into action, incentivization appears to be critical. The consensus suggests that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to system transformation – with most (84 percent) believing it cannot happen without reforming the way care providers are incentivized, with 65 percent of respondents feeling strongly that their organizations are ready to address or are already working on aligning incentives to outcomes.

Healthcare CEOs
Align incentives to outcome

Key takeaway

  • Health leaders expect their organizations to transform significantly within the next five years; but few have built a mandate or plan to make it happen.

  • Leading transformation is a team sport – and CEOs will need to determine how to empower their teams to be partners in change by getting them involved in shaping transformation, and by enabling them to action change and giving them responsibility in the transformation process.

  • While transformation can happen with the initiative of health leaders and their teams, true reforms are best enabled when financial incentives are aligned to their success.

How to take action

Health leaders should reflect on their strategies to see if they are built for the future. The case for transformation in healthcare may be apparent, but this must be backed up with a clear strategy that provides a long-term vision that can weather the dynamics of technological change, customer-centricity, increased demand and complexity, and unforeseen shocks to the system. COVID-19 has elevated the ‘common denominator’ role of healthcare in society, so health leaders should engage, inspire and incentivize their organization and the broader ecosystem around them to align behind their visions – turning those raw ambitions into the future they own.