It’s an understatement to say COVID-19 transformed healthcare. An industry that traditionally struggled to keep pace with digital innovation implemented decades worth of tech in a few short months to meet the demands of the pandemic head-on. Whether enabling remote clinical collaboration and pop-up field hospitals or a distributed administrative workforce – there has been an underlying question about the plunge into a digital-first strategy: Is it going to last?
After a year in flux, U.S. healthcare IT leaders are now taking the pulse of their teams and systems – and judging the long-term efficacy of COVID stop-gap measures. What is here to stay, what isn’t, and – now that they have time to think – how does their organization move thoughtfully into a digitally-focused healthcare future?
A focus group of healthcare IT executives, CHIME members, was held and provides valuable insights on the current decisions, challenges, and repercussions facing healthcare organizations across the nation. Leaders shared their thoughts on moving forward with the remote work transformation and how they are approaching their digital infrastructure investments in the short and long-term, revealing the most pressing demands of healthcare IT now.
Remote Work Is Here for Good
By and large, healthcare organizations agree that a hybrid workforce is here to stay. Non-clinical departments like IT, billing, and administration will move forward either entirely remote or in a hybrid model, and clinical workers will have more options such as remote rounding and ongoing telehealth. Leaders are weighing the costs and benefits of a hybrid workforce and in a post-COVID climate are finding unique challenges and circumstances.
Unexpected Barriers and Challenges
A factor looming large in many leaders’ minds is the current real estate market and the climbing cost of physical space. Several leaders expressed that because of the shift to remote work they were downsizing administrative offices, by as much as 40%, saving departments hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The real estate boom has also impacted recruitment with one leader emphasizing the need for a remote workforce because new hires are being priced out of homes in their market.
However, healthcare is not alone in its need for IT talent and teams are noticing attrition to new, well-paying remote positions in other fields. In addition to having to compete in and out of the industry for top-talent, HR teams are realizing enabling remote work isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Providing benefits and appropriately taxing employees in all 50 states is a logistical nightmare for companies not currently structured for a distributed workforce. Some teams have had to backtrack on total laxity in employee locale, focusing on recruiting out of a set number of states.
If remote work is truly here to stay, so is managing employees and building team culture in a remote environment. Leaders expressed worry about long-term culture and productivity issues. COVID-19 necessitated remote work and even propelled productivity. However, a record number of employees are already feeling the strain of entangled work/home life. Leaders worry burnout coupled with a newly reopening world, might be a recipe for loss of productivity over time.
How Is Healthcare Investing in IT Now?
Collaboration, agility, security measures were at the forefront during COVID and now healthcare organizations are looking to capitalize on the momentum with the right next step. For many that is making the leap into the cloud. Others are looking to cement the changes made during the pandemic and shore-up any systems or processes that may have got lost in the shuffle.
Making the Leap to the Cloud
Healthcare has been understandably cloud resistant in the past. Security is always top-of-mind with patient information and business reputation always at stake. Bad actors are growing in sophistication and consistency, and migrating large legacy systems and data is daunting. But today’s healthcare IT leaders feel ready. The diverse managed options, security, and agility of today’s cloud, mean it’s the logical next step for most. As one leader put it, “I don’t want to ever build another data center.”
In addition to reducing on premises management – again physical space and safety are coming to the forefront. One executive talked about the importance of diversifying data in multiple locations – citing specifically ongoing wildfire concerns in the West. While the leap to cloud is still an important – and at times an intimidating endeavor – it solves more long-term problems than it temporarily creates.
Additional IT Challenges
Other top concerns for leaders included managing BYOD, end-point security, and maintaining an optimal experience for both employees and patients. Patient-centered experiences continue to be important with the explosion of telehealth but streamlining the user experience for clinicians is also a top-priority. Similarly, while many IT departments think outsourcing help desks maybe inevitable, they remain cognizant of the need for the right partner to ensure the transition is seamless for providers.
Moving Forward with Momentum
COVID forced healthcare to make IT infrastructure strides that were a long time coming. As leaders look forward to a digital-first model, they are grappling with new and evolving challenges that come with any drastic shift. However, the optimism about what this transition has meant for their organizations is palpable – and while the last year has been a trial by fire – healthcare might come out the other side more ready and resilient for a digital-first world.
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