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Invest in digital health tools strategically -- especially now

Healthcare CIOs should invest in and deploy new digital health tools cautiously and strategically, despite the FDA's decision to relax regulations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has relaxed restrictions for certain digital health tools, but that means healthcare CIOs should be even more strategic in how they adopt and deploy those tools.

The FDA is removing obstacles to expand clinical decision support systems, such as digital alerts for providers, and remote patient monitoring tools like electronic stethoscopes or cardiac monitors. The FDA's decision to relax those restrictions is an effort to reduce in-person contact between patients and providers; it echoes similar recent efforts from the Office for Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to do the same.

But analysts issued a word of caution to healthcare CIOs: Now is not the time to form new partnerships and invest in new digital health tools -- even if vendors are offering them for free. Unless investment in a digital health tool alleviates a significant, immediate pain point, CIOs should lean on trusted vendor partners and build out existing technologies and programs.

Rely on existing partners, tools

Under normal circumstances, engaging startups and investing in new digital health tools is a healthcare CIO's bread and butter. During a pandemic, Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Becker said CIOs should scale back the entrepreneurial part of their job and double down on vendors and tools that are "tried and true."

Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey BeckerJeffrey Becker

Doing so ensures stability at a time when stability is vital. Adding new digital health tools to the mix could introduce complexity, complication and frustration.

"If it were my hospital, I would take the tact that right now is not the right time to start new relationships," he said. "It's a lot to deploy new technologies into clinical workflows in a situation where you just don't have the capacity to really baby that relationship and make sure that it goes well."

Gartner analyst Mandi Bishop also said that healthcare CIOs should work with established partners and technologies in the face of the pandemic. She said the FDA's relaxed restrictions will be helpful for technologically mature healthcare systems that use internet of things and remote patient monitoring devices and rely on analytics to monitor those devices and help providers make decisions based on the data provided.

Gartner analyst Mandi BishopMandi Bishop

Remote patient monitoring and clinical decision support tools likely won't be a major focus for healthcare systems that haven't instituted the technology, Bishop said. "It's not something that you want to be introducing clinicians to in the middle of an emergency," she said.

Dykki Settle, chief digital officer at Path, said any technology not already in place within a healthcare system should "go on hold" when responding to an outbreak like COVID-19. Path is a nonprofit global healthcare organization that partners with governments, healthcare organizations and businesses to solve challenges in healthcare.

Path chief digital officer Dykki SettleDykki Settle

"It is not the time, during an outbreak, to be bringing in new tools and technologies," Settle said during Tableau's virtual healthcare summit last week. "Countries get completely overwhelmed at all the well-meaning help and support and new approaches and tools that are brought to them. They really need to be kept clear of that and be able to focus on what's happening."

Settle said healthcare CIOs should instead build on the digital health tools they have, such as extending the reach of communication tools to patient populations or embracing logistics management information systems most healthcare organizations have for supply chain management.

Bishop said leaning on existing vendor partners first gives healthcare CIOs a chance to expand on existing offerings now and adjust on the back end later as the COVID-19 crisis stabilizes.

If CIOs do invest

But, Bishop said, there are some specific use cases when CIOs should consider forging new partnerships -- even during a pandemic.

When it comes to telehealth and managing patient flow, Bishop said it may be in a CIOs best interest to take a chance on new partners, she said.

That said, Chilmark Research analyst Alex Lennox-Miller said healthcare CIOs who invest in new digital health tools or expand technology offerings that take advantage of the FDA's relaxed restrictions should remember the relaxed restrictions won't last forever. That eventuality is something healthcare CIOs should plan for now.

It is not the time, during an outbreak, to be bringing in new tools and technologies.
Dykki SettleChief digital officer, Path

"People who are making those plans, adopting tools now, deploying them, using the accelerated timelines these relaxations allow but who will be able to continue to use them going forward are going to be in a much better place than people who just say, 'Oh awesome, we can use Zoom now,' and aren't necessarily thinking about what it's going to mean when those exemptions go away," he said.

Forrester's Becker said for healthcare CIOs who need technology that their existing vendors can't provide, it's important to look at vendor evaluations to determine who would be a good fit for the organization, especially when it comes to telehealth.

"A virtual care standpoint is where a lot of these new relationships are being forged," he said.

Indeed, Gartner's Bishop said for CIOs who don't already have an existing relationship with a telemedicine provider such as Amwell, Doctor on Demand or Teladoc, that's an "immediate opportunity" for vendors. Patient throughput capacity management is another area Bishop believes healthcare CIOs should be looking to -- tools that vendors like Philips, GE Healthcare and TeleTracking Technologies provide.

"If you can help with a hospital system being able to forecast the patient volume, forecast the surge so CIOs can more effectively forecast that new facility when they're going to have to spin up these mobile ICUs or remote capacity units; those types of solutions that are immediately helpful are the messages that will get through to a CIO," she said.

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