Digital as a Strategic Imperative


Healthcare has an incredible opportunity to “double down” on digital to achieve the universal mission to improve patient care and outcomes. Leaders who develop the organizational structures to optimize the opportunities will likely find themselves at a competitive advantage.

Edmondo Robinson, MD

The fact that our world is becoming increasingly digital is without question. Everything from retail to education has been significantly impacted by digital tools and technologies and consumers have shifted to a digital-first mindset. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this transition to the point where it is unlikely we will return to the pre-pandemic ways of doing business. Healthcare has not been immune to this transformation with the prime example being the exponential transition to virtual care in response to the pandemic. Healthcare now has an incredible opportunity to “double down” on digital in ways that will truly improve the ability to achieve the universal mission to improve patient care and outcomes.

"Digital health connects and empowers people and populations to manage health and wellness, augmented by accessible and supportive provider teams working within flexible, integrated, interoperable and digitally-enabled care environments that strategically leverage digital tools, technologies and services to transform care delivery."

HIMSS’ definition of “digital health” offers some key insights for leaders. Digital is not a technology; it is a strategic approach to care delivery that leverages tools to achieve an organization’s articulated goals. Reaching the full potential of digital health requires a disciplined approach to digital as a strategic imperative. Here are five important facets to being more strategic about digital transformation:

Organizational Structure: Making digital health a strategic imperative means building out an organizational structure that will be responsible for developing and executing on that strategy. That structure should start with a digital strategy leader who is highly placed within the organization to be able to engage in and help shape institutional priorities, as well as access the resources needed to drive digital transformation. Increasingly, this leader is being developed as a “Chief Digital Officer” or similar title. Critically, this is a strategic leader as much as, if not more than, they are a technology leader.

The remainder of the optimal digital health organizational structure flows from the digital leader and focuses on the critical technology assets necessary to drive transformation in each organization. Health system leadership needs to determine the most appropriate mix of technology assets but they typically are some combination of information technology, data, and digital innovation.

Thinking Broadly about IT: IT may seem like the easiest to asset to incorporate into this new digital strategic model but, in practice, it is often the hardest. For most health systems, IT (typically led by a Chief Information Officer) is a well-established and highly resourced component of the organization. The optimal role of IT in a digital health strategic framework is as a technology cornerstone. IT serves as a critical component to operationalizing digital strategies. Where leadership often gets challenged is by assuming IT is the totality of the digital strategy. There are other components, including data and innovation, that must be prioritized separately from core IT functions or the overall digital strategy will be stunted or incomplete.

Being Strategic About Data: Data is another important operational component of the overall digital strategy. Much has been written about data as an increasingly important asset in healthcare. At a minimum, a health system’s digital leader should articulate a strategy around how to optimize the use of their data assets to accelerate digital transformation. More advanced organizations will see benefit to developing a team and leadership focused on data. The relatively new role of Chief Data Officer has a potentially broad remit from building out an infrastructure to leading “big data” projects like development and operationalization of machine learning based predictive analytics to drive clinical decision support algorithms.

Innovation as a Core Function: The innovation component of a robust digital health strategy and structure is an increasingly important function. The concept is to task a dedicated team focused on digital transformation at “the edge” of the current technology landscape. Working closely with their IT colleagues, the digital innovation team should have a “fail fast” approach that builds the next generation of tools and technology. This allows Agile-based development in concepts such as robotic process automation, virtual reality, and many others while maintaining appropriate firewalls between newly developed concepts and critical technology systems until the new technologies are ready for early deployment. When successful, this work eventually becomes part of core business.

Leadership Matters: For organizations focused on digital health transformation, having a strategic leader who manages the operational components of that transformation (IT, data, innovation) is an important prerequisite. Optimizing that structure requires a disciplined approach to management and leadership. The role of the digital leader is to identify enterprise strategic imperatives that may be enabled and/or accelerated by digital tools and technology. Digital transformation must start with organizational priorities, including development of key performance indicators and return on investment assessments for transformation initiatives. Digital health strategy is not a collection of solutions looking for problems, but a disciplined development of solutions based on enterprise-wide strategic priorities.

Healthcare is quickly entering into a new digital world. Health system leaders who embrace this change and develop the leadership, organizational structures, and processes to optimize the opportunities will likely find themselves at a competitive advantage.