Of all the ways the Covid-19 pandemic has left its mark on healthcare, one of the most compelling is the telehealth piece. Despite the fact that the technology had been in place and consumers had expressed interest, it took a global event to move the needle. And in doing so, provided CIOs and other leaders an opportunity to demonstrate that it works; that digital tools can be leveraged to provide a “better, cheaper way to deliver patient care.”
Although this is certainly a boon for the industry, it has caused some — including Michael Ames, Senior Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences with SADA — to ask a critical question: “Why weren’t we already there” with virtual visits? And perhaps more importantly, “What other opportunities are we missing out on because we aren’t willing to move forward and to take the next step?”
The answer, he noted, is a lack of recognition that investments in innovation don’t have to be “huge” to yield significant return. They do, however, require a level of courage that healthcare organizations haven’t always had — or, perhaps more accurately — been able to act upon, until now. During a recent webinar discussion, Ames and co-panelists Aaron Miri (CIO, Dell Medical School and UT Health Austin) and Zafar Chaudry, MD (CIO, Seattle Children’s Hospital) shared their thoughts on the critical role cloud computing can play in enabling innovation, the roadblocks that still exist in moving to the cloud, and how vendors can help remove some of those.
The first step, according to Chaudry, is in realizing that the game has changed. As technologies were rolled out in record time, particularly during the early stages of Covid, clinicians became “more open to change,” he noted. “They’re now demanding more agility from their IT shop in terms of what tools and technologies they can use, and the speed at which they’re brought to market.”
And it isn’t just clinicians; the expectations have risen among patients and caregivers as well, meaning the bar has been raised in a big way. What hasn’t changed, however, are IT budgets, which presents a significant challenge for leaders. “We’re having to innovate more,” he said, but at the same time, “We have to be leaner and meaner in terms of how we deliver services. The money isn’t exactly flowing.”
Miri concurred, adding that this is where having a balanced approach comes into play, particularly as healthcare shifts from a “cost-averse and risk-averse” mindset to one focused on agility and rapid acceleration. “It’s taking ideas from your clinical and medical staff and trying to execute and implement them.”
He believes cloud can help facilitate that, especially in the world of academic research, where results are expected to happen quickly. Although UT Health Austin currently runs a hybrid private-public cloud environment, the plans are to migrate to the public cloud.
It’s a trend that has gained momentum, according to Ames, particularly as organizations reassess spending and realize how much is being allocated to brick-and-mortar data centers, which often still don’t provide the capacity and scalability that’s needed. Cloud solutions, on the other hand, offer consumption-based pricing and pay-as-you-go options that have become very attractive.
“The true miracle of cloud infrastructure, especially for the bursting workloads of experimentation, is you can spin up what you want to use,” he said. “If it’s not enough, spin up more. And then when you’re done, you shut it down and quit paying for it. To me, that’s the major advantage.”
Best Practices: Internally
IT leaders, however, know the tremendous value cloud offers. The challenge is in selling it to the organization and finding the right vendor partnership. The key in both cases, according to the panelists, is trust.
- Building from within. That trust, they noted, needs to come from within the organization. It’s no secret that in many cases, IT tends to operate as its own entity, said Ames, which makes it critical that it is “well integrated” with other departments, and has established a high amount of trust and support. The difference between those who have reached that level and those who aren’t is “stark,” he noted, and can result in teams working in isolation.
- Prove it. When it comes down to it, the most effective way to build confidence is by notching wins — even small ones, Miri said. Once that happens, “you’ve earned the right to have the conversation with the clinicians, and they trust that you’re going to execute. That’s how you’re able to do it.” When momentum starts to grow, the conversations become more didactic, and even “fun,” he added.
- Change the culture. In some cases, however, even getting the chance for a victory can be difficult, said Ames, who added that leaders should be willing to ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. “Don’t wait to be asked to do it,” he said. “Figure out how to do a small innovation that adds value. Then get some visibility, and build on that. Do another, then another, until you start to build trust.” In doing so, IT can help change the culture, and demonstrate its ability to transform the organization, which can lead to more responsibility, and eventually more resources. “You have to be willing to take those first steps,” he added.
- Discuss risk management. Because healthcare is “transacted at the speed of light,” according to Miri, IT leaders need to prevent roadblocks by establishing strong relationships with compliance and legal teams. The way to do that is by being transparent about costs, and being able to discuss what vendors can and cannot do. “If you do your due diligence and show your cards,” especially when it comes to risk management strategies, “those conversations can go a long way to help speed things up.”
- Ask questions. Finally, it’s important to ask vendors the tough questions, said Ames. “Make sure you’re working with people that know what they’re talking about and can tell you what the limitations are.”
Best Practices: Externally
What’s just as important, of course, is developing trust with vendors, according to the panelists, which requires effort from both sides.
- Have patience. One of the key components, noted Chaudry, is patience. “Vendors need to do a better job for us to trust them,” and they need to realize that healthcare organizations have different needs than retail, for example. “That causes some level of stress, because we’re used to that handholding. We need that.”
- Get healthcare-specific. A common mistake cloud providers make is by offering a generic master service agreement, noted Miri, and lumping hospitals in with other industries, despite the many nuances that make healthcare unique. “It blows my mind that some of them don’t even have healthcare specific account managers,” he said. “I don’t want to see a PowerPoint that you show to a dozen other industries. The speed of agility and the speed of trust is putting people in a same room together that can have a conversation.” Therefore, having representatives who understand the challenges of healthcare and can have those conversations is critical. “Healthcare is different,” Miri added. “We do different things. We’re keeping people alive.”
- Cut contract times. Another issue IT leaders run into is the time it takes to reach contract agreements, according to Chaudry, who noted it can take six to nine months to close a deal. “It’s taking way too long,” he said, and it doesn’t have to be that way. His suggestion? To “build an agreement that works for healthcare, which is replicable and repeatable, and stops people like me and Aaron from having to go through the same process and pain for months.”
- Help with change management. When cloud solutions are introduced, it’s common for certain departments or individuals to resist the change, for fear of losing their jobs. This, according to Chaudry, is where vendors can provide much-needed assistance. “As a CIO, you’re fighting multiple battles. I’m fighting my legal team that says we don’t have bandwidth to support another master service agreement,” he said. “We need help in areas outside of technology to get to the outcomes we’re trying to get.”
This, according to Miri, is where companies like SADA can help fill the holes. “You need a third party to come in and help you decipher those processes,” he said. “You need to be able to have those basic conversations. That’s where trust starts.”
It’s something Ames and his team and constantly working toward, he noted. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between the generic technology of the cloud provider and the solutions you need to transform the organization and bridge the gap.”
To view the archive of this webinar — Leveraging the Cloud as a Cost-Efficient Innovation Playground (Sponsored by SADA) — please click here.