The Gospel of Digital Health, according to someone who has seen all sides

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The word digital has successfully made its way into healthcare but has brought with it not just hope but also a lot of clutter. There is a lot of good news but health IT evangelists have, in my opinion, failed in understanding the real world of providers. Some years ago, I remember attending a Health IT conference in which “futurists” were asking why doctors were not letting technology take its rightful place in healthcare; and following this conference, I drove back to attend a hospital staff meeting where physicians were furious at the new EMR upgrade. It had slowed them down so much that it would have required one more physician to keep up with the routine patient throughput. Patients were complaining of lesser provider contact and the doctors were angry that they were not getting any help.

This gap in worldview between the 2 worlds – the technologists and the providers- is quite wide. The ‘Vinod Khoslas’  predict the eventual disappearance of the medical professional while in the real world doctors are actually being asked to do more everyday. To overcome this divide IT vendors need to understand providers’ experience with the product market and so here is my summary:

  1. Firstly, there is too much clutter in the solutions arena. During my time in the world of providers there was not a week that went by without vendors coming in to pitch their solutions to us and it was clear that many of them were promising the same capabilities. One example is in the area of care coordination. There probably are a hundred or more applications promising to enable this function; the clutter makes choice difficult and provider organizations are wary of bringing another sub-optimal  product into their already clunky IT backbone.
  2. Secondly, most new products are coming with little real world experience. The external forces that are forcing change in the healthcare economy have simultaneously stimulated the proliferation of new products. However, these companies have been suffering from the uncertainties of their end customer. The healthcare systems often do not have a long-term digital strategy and hence remain averse to commit to a technology that they are unsure will help them in the evolving healthcare economy. Therefore, most of these new products remain stuck in pilots or limited sales success. Providers who are already occupied by their EMRs have little appetite left for experimenting with the unknown.
  3. The headlines hide the realities .The Kaisers and American Wells of healthcare frequently pop up on our news feeds with exciting launches and experiences. While this shows promise the vast majority of institutions are incapable of taking such leaps due to lack of strategic clarity or the resources to understand how new technologies fit into their ever changing world of affiliations, acquisitions and mergers.

IT vendors can overcome this ‘digital divide’ if they change the way they do business.  The ones that can succeed in this uncertain world are the ones that can transform themselves from being product sellers to technology partners. In order to do this they have to acquire new capabilities and skills as below

  1. Diagnose the digital maturity of their prospects and try to understand clearly where they are in the journey toward a new type of operational- business model.
  2. Facilitate vision building by talking to the customer about required capabilities first and products later.
  3. Build an ecosystem of vendor partnerships and always explore how exponential value can be created jointly as opposed to limited value from their own discrete products
  4. Embed “design thinking” in all projects and execute successfully by engaging directly with providers and patients.

The above approach will help organizations see vendors as partners who are trying to create value for them as opposed to merely pushing products. I know this is not going to be an easy change and many vendors will be incapable of doing so; but the reality is that the impact of the new world of IT is not just on customer facing enterprises but product vendors too. Health IT suppliers needs to understand that the new world is about new skills, collaborations and partnerships not just inside the organizations being courted but outside as well

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