As healthcare organizations strive to position themselves for success in a constantly-evolving space, one thing is becoming clear. The strategies and philosophies that have proven effective in the past simply won’t cut it, particularly as digital health takes center stage.
In other words, this isn’t the health system of 20 (or even 10) years ago, and the leadership team needs to reflect that. “Consumer behaviors and expectations are changing, and we need to be able to accommodate that,” said Shally Pannikode in a recent interview. As digital technologies become more pervasive, the need to provide a digital consumer experience that seamlessly connects physical and virtual care experience for our patients and consumers increases.
For WellStar Health System, one of the largest and most integrated health systems in Georgia, it meant hiring Pannikode as its Chief Information and Digital Officer — a position that reports directly to the CEO, a reflection of how much the organization values technology and digital transformation. The leap, however, isn’t an easy one. It requires a solid technology foundation (which WellStar has in place), alignment with internal and external constituents, and a cultural change that must be managed with care. In this interview, we spoke with Pannikode about how her team is working to create a “highly-interconnected consumer experience focused model,” and why it’s so critical for IT individuals to understand the ‘why.’ She also talks about how she navigated her first 90 days, why authenticity is the most important leadership quality, and the coalition she helped found that’s focused on ending human trafficking.
- Providing a “solid foundation” with Epic platform
- Wellstar’s “strategic hire”
- Leveraging digital health to follow patients
- Marrying IT and digital
- Reporting to the CEO – “It’s a reflection of how much we value digital transformation.”
- Coming to WellStar – “I’ve grown up in healthcare.”
- 18 years with Anthem
- IT’s impact on patient care – “It’s the ‘why’ that gets me up in the morning.”
We believe our ability to meet our customers where they want to be met, through technology solutions and digital transformation, is critical to our success.
These roles are highly interconnected, and leading both roles for the organization allows me to look at the technology space more strategically, rather than thinking about those verticals in silos.
I do not believe digital transformation is just a technology play. It takes every part of the organization to move the needle in this space. It only happens when the entire organization is walking the path with you, and there is leadership backing.
There is a much stronger collaboration between payer and provider as in Value Based care models. I believe being closer to patients and the delivery of care and understanding how the industry works from a provider/health system perspective is an important learning step.
Gamble: Hi Shally, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with healthsystemCIO about the work your team is doing at WellStar Health System, as well as your career path. Let’s start with the application environment. You’re using Epic, correct?
Pannikode: Yes. We’ve had a very successful implementation, which was ranked highly by Epic in terms of maturity and level of integration.
We’re very proud of that. It has given us a solid foundation to start thinking about how to move the organization forward in the digital space and the consumer experience space.
Gamble: And it’s been in place for a few years?
Pannikode: Yes. The acquisitions and other systems that have joined the WellStar umbrella integrate very successfully with Epic. We are recognized as one of the 2019 CHIME Healthcare’s Most Wired systems.
Gamble: I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which you hope to leverage that foundation, but first, can you describe your role?
Pannikode: My role is chief information and digital officer. Chief Digital Officer is a new role at WellStar. We believe our ability to meet our customers where they want to be met, through technology solutions and digital transformation, is critical to our success. If you look around the industry — or even outside the industry — we live in a world where consumer experience dictates business strategy. Customer behaviors and expectations are changing, and they demand content anywhere any time in the format that they choose on a device they prefer, and we need to be able to accommodate that.
Gamble: So the big question becomes, how?
Pannikode: Exactly. The most critical priority is to leapfrog into that digital transformation path. And that means putting technology platforms in place to provide capabilities like self-check-in, so patients can understand where they are in the queue. It’s enabling patients to see a physician virtually. It’s enabling them to complete key milestones in their healthcare journey inside or outside of the four walls of our facilities. It is about leveraging technology and data to deliver proactive connected care to our consumers and patients every time.
Every day, our team of 24,000 healthcare professionals work side-by-side with our patients to help them achieve healthy, stable, quality outcomes, and the patient’s healthcare journey continues when he or she leaves our facility. Delivering care to our patients through remote monitoring and online care allow them to access follow-up with ease. Our focus is leveraging a combination of technology platforms to make that care journey exponentially simpler and more efficient for our customers.
Gamble: The new role of chief information and digital officer is very telling in terms of where the industry is headed and the need to marry the two worlds.
Pannikode: It absolutely is. They are tightly coupled. Having a strong technology foundation, security, and operational efficiency is critical. It is about leveraging the strengths of the foundation to deliver world class service and exceptional digital experience to our consumers. To me, these roles are highly interconnected, and leading both roles for the organization allows me to look at the technology space more strategically, rather than thinking about those verticals in silos.
Gamble: In terms of structure, who do you report to?
Pannikode: I report to Candice Saunders, President and CEO of WellStar Health System. The reporting structure reflects the value of digital transformation, and how critical we believe it is to the success of our organization.
As a digital leader, I do not believe digital transformation is just a technology play. It takes every part of the organization to move the needle in this space. It only happens when the entire organization is walking the path with you, and there is leadership backing from departments across the organization.
Gamble: As we know, that’s not necessarily how things have been done. Do you think the fact that digital was somewhat confined to certain areas may have contributed to healthcare being behind the curve?
Pannikode: I think the reporting structure can help with change management and leadership support internally. But I’m not sure it necessarily simplifies the broader complexity in the healthcare industry. The healthcare industry is complex in general, involving several constituents, dimensions and entities. For example, in Telehealth, the idea of delivering care through an app on mobile devices is not new; it’s been around for years. But when you look at the healthcare industry in general — how much it has picked up and how far along some organizations are in the spectrum — you see that it’s not a technology challenge. Instead, it’s the changing of behaviors and processes that are impacted by the technology like scheduling and reimbursement. I believe it’s the complexity of the environment that’s having the greatest effect; it’s rarely the true technology aspect.
Gamble: That’s a great point. Is that part of what drew you to this role — the challenges and opportunities for moving the digital needle in healthcare?
Pannikode: That’s a great question. I’ve grown up in the healthcare technology sector. I spent about 18 years of my career at Anthem in technology leadership roles — I understand the payer space. If you look at the industry, there is a much stronger collaboration between payer and provider as in Value Based care models. I believe being closer to patients and the delivery of care and understanding how the industry works from a provider/health system perspective is an important learning step.
I couldn’t have chosen a better organization to help me take that leap. WellStar is a leading health system; we continue to expand our presence in the space. We truly believe in delivering world class care to every patient, every single time.
I walk the floors of our hospitals, meet patients, and see firsthand how the solutions we implement impact patient lives. My team recently delivered an AI solution that allows us to diagnose a stroke several seconds faster. That capability alone is going to save numerous lives. That’s just one example of what my team does every day — I couldn’t imagine doing anything better than that. It is, as Simon Sinek says, the ‘why’ that gets me up in the morning.