By TRAVIS GOOD | Oct 3, 2017

This may sound strange in the world we inhabit—helping hospitals modernize healthcare by moving to digital technology—but when it comes to digital health transformation, there is too much emphasis on the technology itself and not enough on the people we are trying to serve.

Most people think digital health transformation is about the transfer of data and view technology as the solution. In fact, behavior change is usually the largest barrier to overcome.

That’s why the first step to successful digital health transformation is to understand the underlying problems.

Understand the underlying problems
When we’re working with people in a health system, we ask about their strategic initiatives for the year and what technology they need to transform to provide an innovative care model.

It’s not about finding the coolest, most technologically advanced widget on the market. It’s about finding the pain points and determining how that translates to the needs of caregivers or patients.

One client, for example, was focused on the transition of care as patients move from a hospital to long-term care or a skilled-nursing facility. But they weren’t simply trying to get the data from one facility to another. It was important to manage that transfer in a way that ensured they were improving the patient experience.

Know how technology fits into workflows
A second key focus should be on how the technology fits into the workflow of the healthcare provider. That means treating the work less like an IT project and more like an operations project so it is aligned with the strategic initiatives of the overall department.

Take, for example, a project that focuses on operating room procedures to replace hips and knees. From a technology perspective, we might focus on getting data from the electronic health record to optimize inventory levels of replacement joints, resulting in a boosted return on investment by sterilizing fewer instruments, reducing employee costs, and other efficiencies.

But if you talk to the operations people, say the director of the OR, they might have several additional departmental goals, such as more accurate and timely data to help with supply chain management or budgeting.

Standardize everything
A third element to successfully incorporating digital health is standardization. Not just the technology tool itself but all the processes you need to support it, such as compliance, training, and support procedures, so you can reduce complexity each time you want to add another application to your ecosystem.

Even deciding whether and how to add new technology should be standardized. Too often, the IT team hears of a new piece of technology that can change the way care is provided and their first thought is to build it themselves inside their existing technology, without a process in place to understand whether it’s a smart long-term investment.

Technology dominates the digital-health conversation because technologists are driving the discussion. Most people outside of IT don’t know what is possible so we’re still training and giving them information they need to be more effective when making technology requests.

The chief medical information officers we work with like to have geek-out sessions on the latest, greatest technologies, or where the future is headed, but when you talk to doctors, there is often a hatred for the technology they’re forced to use, primarily because it takes time away from their patients.

Whose fault is that? Earlier on, we would have said it’s the health system’s fault because they didn’t translate why they were doing these projects.

But, there’s another side of it too. We implemented documentation tools for people to type into, without building the value proposition. It’s no wonder people complain that we have all this data but we’re not using it.

The discussion needs to include more non-technology subject-matter experts. In addition to the operations people I mentioned in the joint replacement example, we also need physicians and the people who manage the patient experience by doing surveys and running focus groups.

More than anything, we need to elevate the role of the health information management person, who is the custodian of the records that are kept and stored for the health systems to operate. They carry a lot of influence and power and, as we learned in the early phases of introducing electronic health records, when they aren’t consulted up front, they are left to clean up the mess.

In the short term, having more voices around the table won’t necessarily make the process of transformation more efficient. But, in the long-term, broadening beyond a technology discussion will be necessary.

We would even argue that we need to change our language. The word digital implies technology and technical jargon people don’t understand.

This era, this movement, should not be called digital health transformation. Let’s call it simply health transformation. It’s one small step but it will help direct focus on patients and the care they need.

Photo: HASLOO, Getty Images

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