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After an unprecedented year, healthcare CIOs said they will double down on creating better, more accessible and more equitable digital experiences for patients and providers.
Craig Richardville, CIO at SCL Health in Broomfield, Colo., said health IT initiatives related to telehealth and digital patient access will continue to be a focus in 2021, a year he believes will advance a digital-first mentality in healthcare. Patients have long-sought easier, more convenient access to care, and 2020 became a proving ground for virtual care access and delivery.
That push to digital-first will be helped along by new federal regulations requiring healthcare systems to implement standardized APIs that can seamlessly share data with other health systems and third-party mobile apps, starting Dec. 31, 2022.
For Aaron Miri, CIO at UT Health Austin, the pandemic not only further revealed the power digital technologies have in connecting patients and providers, but the inequity of accessing care as well. Miri said in 2021, building more accessible healthcare systems will cause CIOs to focus their health IT investments and strategies on health equity and patient engagement.
2021 health IT investments
Through efforts undertaken to track and manage COVID-19, Miri said UT Health Austin epidemiology was able to connect with more individuals without access to proper care.
Healthcare systems and public health agencies relied on contact tracing, a largely manual process to track and notify people who might have been exposed to a disease, to manage the spread of COVID-19. At UT Health Austin, the practice was not only used to reopen after mandated quarantine measures but to monitor patients and healthcare workers exposed to COVID-19.
In tracking the virus, the health system was introduced to the broader community, enabling providers to interact with people who were not documented patients in the healthcare system.
"We found folks that were sitting in food deserts, sitting disconnected from the rest of the area in Austin, and were able to connect them with other social service agencies to assist them so they're not starving and disconnected from Wi-Fi," Miri said. "We couldn't see them within our systems. Now they are seen and now they're being addressed, and you're going to see a doubling down on that. How do we use data and our systems to make sure that our catchment area is taking care of everybody?"
Miri said health equity will be a key part of his 2021 health IT strategy, and making sure there is "right place, right time, right access for everybody." That means placing a heavy focus on digital patient access to healthcare and answering the question of "how do we deliver care in an equitable manner to all races, all languages, all genders?" he said.
In that vein, Miri said UT Health Austin is creating a new website to facilitate easier access and promote patient education, as well as investing in new partnerships focused on digital access.
Another way to work at making healthcare more accessible and equitable is through continuous investment in the EHR and systems attached to it, such as speech and translation services for telehealth visits.
"If I'm doing a telemedicine consult and I only speak Spanish, how do I make sure that there is a translator tied into that naturally, so the workflow makes sense for the patient and caregiver?" Miri said. "Things that you weren't thinking of before, you're going to double down on now to make sure the patient experience is as smooth as possible."
Miri isn't the only CIO thinking of improving the patient experience in 2021.
SCL Health's Richardville said he will be focused on providing more self-service tools so that patients can have greater access to healthcare from their homes. Part of his focus entails looking at low- and no-touch technologies such as voice technology, which Richardville believes will be the "next user interface" in healthcare.
"I think the voice aspect of what we do is going to be big, so we're looking at conversational AI to interpret conversations, not just record," he said.
Focus on virtual care will continue, sharpen
Telehealth will continue to be a top investment for healthcare CIOs in 2021.
David Chou, CIO at Harris Health System serving Harris County, Texas, said 2020 emphasized the importance of virtual care delivery for health systems and their patients.
"Many health systems would not have utilized virtual meetings and video solutions if not for the pandemic," Chou said.
For Miri, one of the biggest tech surprises of 2020 was healthcare's embrace of consumer-grade tools like Zoom. The fact that a consumer tech made something like a telehealth visit simple and easy was a big benefit for providers -- despite investments in traditional telemedicine platforms.
"At the end of the day, consumerization won," he said.