As the chief digital officer at Providence, Sara Vaezy is one of main change agents at the 52-hospital system, tasked to lead the organization’s digital transformation efforts.
It’s not easy.
“It’s very difficult to disrupt a massive system like ours,” Vaezy said. “The industry itself is difficult to disrupt from the inside. There are a lot of controls put into places for the right reasons…It’s easier said than done.”
Compounding this difficulty is the increased frequency of digital health initiatives popping up across multiple areas within a health system. With these challenges, experts say it’s necessary to have someone within an organization to act as the chief change agent. Denise Basow, chief digital officer at Ochsner Health, said her role is to help move along the change management needed for digital transformation.
“I really think it’s critical that there's somebody in the organization that is a champion and pushing that type of change and conveying that urgency to the organization,” Basow said. “Sometimes even when there’s a willingness to disrupt, there may not be an understanding of what’s in our tool chest to drive some of that change. That communication and advocacy is how I’ve been spending my time.”
In a survey of health system leaders from consulting firm Deloitte, leadership (80%) and management of implementation (68%) were pegged as the main drivers to successful digital transformation. The main barriers included culture (60%), communication ownership and transparency (48%).
Increasingly, transformation efforts are led in part by a chief digital officer, which has become a more common role within healthcare organizations. Basow was the first person to hold that role at Ochsner when she got hired in November 2021. Health systems such as Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, Bon Secours Mercy Health and Cleveland Clinic have all appointed their first-ever chief digital officers in the last couple of years.
Some organizations rely on a group of people to oversee change. Basow says that Ochsner has focus groups that include technical, clinical and operational personnel to onboard a digital health technology. At Mayo Clinic, Rita Khan, the chief digital officer, said that digital transformation efforts are led by different members of the C-suite, not just her role.
“We’re a complimentary organization,” she said at the Modern Healthcare/Digital Health Business & Technology Transformation Summit on May 17. “I’m not a big fan of shadow organizations. There is so much work to be done that’s needed to achieve a premium experience for our patients that we have to divide and conquer.”
Change comes from the top
Sometimes the chief change agent is the top executive within the organization.
At Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, former CEO, Dr. Stephen Klakso was the chief change agent for a lengthy period, said Dr. Bruce Meyer, president of Jefferson Health. Under Klasko’s watch, Jefferson Health partnered with a venture capital firm to invest in digital health companies, created an internal innovation team, launched a center for connected care and implemented a real-time data monitoring system across the enterprise. It also relied on telehealth across various clinical specialties during the earliest months of the pandemic.
“We have decided, as an organization, that innovation that enhances the quality of care and the quality of work life for our staff is a crucial part of how we want to work in the future and in the present,” Meyer said.
At the end of last year, Klasko left Jefferson Health and the spot of chief change agent was no longer to be filled by one person. Meyer said a group of senior leaders reviews different digital transformation initiatives and decides whether it’s a good fit for Jefferson.
“We have hired leaders who buy into cultural transformation,” said Meyer, who added that having one person to lead all transformation efforts can sometimes impede progress. “When you have a chief innovation officer or someone like that, one of the problems is that everybody else in the organization points to that individual and their team and says, ‘I don't have to innovate, because that's what they do. It's all taken care of.’ And the problem is that the best ideas always arise from frontline staff.”
Every organization has its own culture and thus its own chief change agent or agents, said Dr. Omar Lateef, CEO of the Rush University System for Health.
“Each organization has to decide how to best equip themselves for changes in the future,” Lateef said. “If you don't have the infrastructure or the knowledge to do it, then you should create a role to oversee that, whatever you want to call it.”
In a lot of systems, he said strategy comes from CEOs and tech adoption comes from the chief information or chief technology officer. “There are many preexisting roles that exist that touch on parts of this, that are part of the senior team. Each institution must evaluate if they have the ability to oversee digital transformation in those roles or do they need to put something above that as an umbrella to house this direction?”
At Rush, Lateef said the chief information officer is the person who leads these efforts. He said during the first few months of the pandemic, the chief information officer helped standup telehealth operations at the health system.
“Moving forward as the pandemic wanes, we want to know what is the future of innovation, technology and healthcare? I think you're going to see different roles with different titles be born in the health system, where people have dedicated time towards these initiatives,” Lateef said.