The Landscape Has Changed for Healthcare CIOs: HIMSS21 Conference Insights

Charles Aunger
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HIMSS is back. After the abrupt pandemic-driven cancellation of its marquee conference last year (the first such interruption in its 58-year history), the HIMSS21 Global Health Conference & Exhibition took place in Las Vegas last month.

I participated in the HIMSS CIO Summit at the conference, which offered an opportunity to gather and talk shop both in person and virtually this year. A few days of deep conversation amongst ~300 CIOs and other senior IT executives representing a variety of healthcare stakeholders from across the country and around the globe certainly left an impression. Here’s my perspective of what’s transpiring across the industry as reflected at the conference:

It’s been a tough couple of years for everybody, and particularly tough on those working in healthcare. Like everyone else, CIOs are tired. But beyond pandemic tumult and uncertainty, resource scarcity, and omnipresent cybersecurity threats — healthcare CIOs are also tired of being seen as “the technology people.” 

Big changes

It was abundantly clear at HIMSS21 that the landscape has shifted dramatically since we last conferred back in 2019. My impression is that digitalization has already made an enormous impact — EHRs and interoperability and data prowess are now table stakes in healthcare. There was none of the customary HIPAA hand-wringing, and the ONC was in attendance to point out that it now has some levers in place. The 21st Century Cures Act has been implemented and addresses the electronic access, exchange and use of health information technology that provides accurate patient information for the correct patient, including exchanging such information, and avoids duplication of patient records. That’s already old news. What’s far more interesting is what digitalization has already made possible.

“The pandemic, though tragic and frustrating and still very much with us, has also done us the service of pressure testing our IT infrastructure in ways unimaginable just 18 months ago,” National Coordinator for Health IT Micky Tripathi noted.

Within that context, the buckets for “information” and “technology” are increasingly distinctly separate fields of expertise within healthcare organizations. CIOs still want to own both under their umbrella of responsibility, but beyond merely operational concerns. Their attention has already turned in a much more strategic direction, but they’re still often perceived as the folks who manage IT support and run projects. 

One thing healthcare CIOs are energized about is reframing objectives to suit new realities. Healthcare information technology leaders want to break the confines of reactively meeting baseline requirements, and tackle long-range planning about what they can get done by the end of the decade for measurable business value. Overwhelmingly, they’re focused on products, not projects, and advocating for as much automation as possible as key to creating an engineering culture.

Automation in everything

The pursuit of automation reflects an embrace of maturing AI/ML solutions structured to manage once-costly computational infrastructure, compliance, security, and administrative duties. The push is to “AI everything” in the back office and begin mapping out how those capabilities can enable new avenues for core business development. 

They’re thinking of IT as a producer, instead of IT as overhead. This is an evolutionary leap in mindset. People were talking about AI factories, not AI pilots.

The healthcare technology leaders I spoke with are also learning to form productive partnerships to speed the way. Within that context, I heard a great deal of praise for helpful and innovative companies such as Olive supplying AI-as-a-service in healthcare — quite a few people love their can-do energy. 

Utilizing managed services partnerships and automation has shed new light on what’s possible in healthcare IT. One large New York hospital system CIO said they’d rolled out a vaccine management platform and program in a couple of weeks, and had it integrated as a module in their EHR system within an equally short time span. This is the sort of thing that used to take months or years! They had to do it. They could do it. And they did it.

People Power

In addition to automation (and as expected), security was also a hot topic at HIMSS21 — dovetailing with automation for its increasingly necessary role in meeting today’s cybersecurity needs. But above all other conversation of capability and concerns, CIOs were incredibly reflective this year on the needs of people. The people they serve and the people they lead. Their teams are also tired, and healthcare IT leaders want to support them. They’re committed to investing in the building blocks to increase digital talent and fluency because they see it as the pathway to a more promising future. They’re not just aiming for new heights in efficiency. The goal is more interesting and productive work to provide more profoundly beneficial healthcare services for human beings.

— Charles Aunger is Managing Director at Health2047.

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