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Pandemic could alter healthcare CIO terrain

Harris Health System CIO David Chou talks about how COVID-19 has changed the healthcare CIO's technology strategy -- and why it could change the role itself.

Healthcare CIOs started 2020 with a roadmap for health IT projects that then took a sharp turn because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Chou, CIO at Harris Health System in Houston, Texas, and former principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc., said healthcare CIOs have adjusted their focus away from longer-term projects and toward day-to-day technologies and priorities that enable operations to continue. The pandemic could also be a catalyst for transforming the role of the CIO, making a strong case for healthcare IT leaders to push out of the back office and become executive partners, Chou said.

In this Q&A, Chou, who started as CIO at Harris Health System in May, discusses what tools CIOs are looking at right now as well as how the pandemic will have a lasting effect on health IT and the role of CIO.

What trends or technologies are healthcare CIOs paying attention to right now?

David ChouDavid Chou

David Chou: Virtual care, I think that is definitely here to stay. The industry has been waiting for it. Adoption has been slow with maybe some resistance, but I would say now people are going to go full speed ahead and there is a lot of emphasis there. Remote patient monitoring, anything that's going to improve the wellness of patients without having to see a doctor, those types of initiatives will definitely be there.

I think a lot of CIOs may also recognize [areas] where they don't have the proper foundation in place to support these virtual initiatives. … So there are a lot of investments in the necessary foundation to really scale, for example, a remote workforce from 3,000 to 18,000. You've got to have the right foundation to be able to scale that properly in an expeditious manner. Foundational technology is top-of-mind right now versus any new shiny object.

What are some of those foundational technologies CIOs are looking at?

Chou: The infrastructure networks -- you have to be thinking about utilizing software. You hear about software-defined networks where you can roll out a new site and manage the flow of traffic utilizing software. Really scale up or scale down your site easily. That's going to be huge, and what people should be thinking about in terms of next-generation infrastructure.

Foundational technology is top-of-mind right now versus any new shiny object.
David ChouCIO, Harris Health System

Are CIOs doubling down on tools they have versus bringing in new technologies?

Chou: Definitely [doubling down] for the later part of this year and maybe Q1, Q2 of next year. I think there's enough work in terms of deploying and optimizing what you already have in-house rather than going out and buying the new shiny thing people may be thinking about.

What will CIOs be looking at to help healthcare systems reopen for routine, in-person care?

Chou: Some organizations are going to have to mature their data platforms, whether it's business intelligence or just enterprise analytics because that is going to help drive decision-making. … There will be a lot of emphasis on making data available so users can take action. That's going to be critical as things are starting to open up.

Organizations have to reevaluate their business models too. Coming into the start of this year pre-COVID, there was a lot of emphasis on modernizing their back office. [For example,] moving toward ERP is probably on everyone's agenda in the healthcare provider world within the next two to three years. That may be on pause, but this may also be a good time to reflect on that. That's not just updating a system, it's about reevaluating your supply chain that has probably not changed in the last 15 years. You have to redesign the process to be more efficient in today's new world. You can only do that with the right data in place to make those decisions, but also to transform the organization's process. That's the hard part.

How do you think this pandemic will impact the role of the CIO?

Chou: I would say there's probably going to be a change in expectation for IT and CIO leaders. The traditional philosophy and traditional management of just keeping the lights on is probably not going to fare well in the new era where [organizations] are looking at technology to be a competitive advantage and a differentiator. The CIO that can really do that can help organizations maximize their investment and are going to be key drivers and partners for the CEO and the executive team. The ones who are not able to do that and are focused on managing technology without understanding the true impact, I would say they may not be around their seats much longer.

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