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CIOs challenged to make healthcare delivery faster, cheaper

In this Q&A, former Intermountain Healthcare CIO Marc Probst talks about how the pandemic has affected the healthcare CIO's agenda. Hint: It's all about efficiency.

For healthcare CIOs, the name of the healthcare delivery game is efficiency.  

Marc Probst, former Intermountain Healthcare CIO who now serves as CIO at healthcare connectivity software vendor Ellkay LLC in Elmwood Park, N.J., said the COVID-19 pandemic has added pressure to reduce healthcare delivery costs and made a strong case as to why CIOs should be heavily involved in that effort.

In this Q&A, Probst discussed how the pandemic has reprioritized the healthcare CIO's agenda to look at innovative technologies, assess older IT systems and, above all, invest in healthcare delivery systems and practices that emphasize efficiency.

What innovation in the health IT space stands out to you during this pandemic?

Marc Probst: What we've seen around telehealth, it certainly has played a role in healthcare's ability to continue to provide services. The concept of telehealth wasn't new, but there are a lot of smaller innovations around how we use it, how we integrate things like digital texting and email and reminder notices and schedules. I think you're going to see spending in telehealth increase because now, as an industry, we're going to have to move from, 'OK, we reacted, we did all these things,' to now, 'We have to get to something that makes sense and that we can support.' I think that's an interesting area and an area where we'll continue to see innovation.

Marc Probst, former CIO, Intermountain HealthcareMarc Probst

Digital health itself ... you're seeing interesting new technologies, whether it be these thermometers that check mass groups of people, actual analytics around contact tracing -- those are interesting AI-esque pieces. They're fragmented, they're new, some are very niche, but they're bringing to the surface the capabilities of those tools, and I think we'll continue to see investment in moving those innovations forward, particularly by large organizations that can afford to.

What challenges do you foresee for healthcare CIOs coming out of the pandemic?

Probst: The biggest challenge in health IT is going to be the biggest challenge in healthcare: How are we going to get all this stuff done and lower our costs? Because there's just not going to be an option not to lower our costs. And it can't be just, 'Oh yeah, we're going to do it cheaper now with telehealth.' No, we've got to dramatically lower the cost of delivery. It's going to be painful.

There is a lot more we can do to become efficient, and we can look at other industries and see where we can do those things.
Marc ProbstFormer CIO, Intermountain Healthcare; CIO, Ellkay LLC

What is a healthcare CIO's role in lowering healthcare delivery costs?

Probst: It's going to depend on the CIO. If they're an order-taker and just go do technical work, then it's going to be a minimal role. But I don't think that's the role of the CIO. I think it's to be a key member of the executive team. We are a massive expense for an organization. We spend a lot of money. We have a key role to play. My perspective is we aren't the most efficient operation within a healthcare organization because it hasn't always had the greatest level of focus within the organization. There is a lot more we can do to become efficient, and we can look at other industries and see where we can do those things.

Where do CIOs start if they want their operations to be more efficient?

Probst: You do it hand-in-glove with the operations. You have to. If an organization has five CRM products, that's not efficient. You need to sit with the operations and say, 'How do we get to one?' It may cost capital to get to that one, but show on the operating side how much that's going to save, show on the security side how much that's going to save. It has to be done hand-in-glove, it can't be done in isolation.

We have to look at other industries. Historically, we have been very shy to outsource anything. Well, we're never going to be the best at certain things, and if we want to do it well and get the efficiencies in healthcare, we're going to have to outsource more things that we do.

What's the CIO's plate going to look like for the next two years?

Probst: I do think the watch word is going to be how do we get costs down, how do we become more efficient. But in that, how are you going to do that without improving interoperability, how are you going to do that without retiring a bunch of old systems that you just keep running because you haven't taken the time to take the data off it and move it into something else that's functional for the organization? How are you going to do that? All these things have been on CIOs' plates for a long, long time, but because of the momentum that cost reduction is going to create, they're going to have to do the things they've known they've had to do, and they're going to, unfortunately, have to do it with less resources.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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