Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Healthcare providers must all become digital companies

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for health systems to create a "new exceptional" for care delivery by going digital and embracing patient and enterprise engagement. In the Next Normal, all healthcare providers must be digital companies.

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If COVID-19 has taught health systems anything, it's that the time to wait is over. Before the pandemic struck, healthcare providers spent much of their time and resources expanding their traditional investments. Think primary care networks, surgical centers, and physical campuses. The goal was to build up brick-and-mortar walled gardens to capture and increase revenues.

But COVID-19 accelerated a shift that was long coming. Suddenly, patients had access to physicians through virtual care apps. Many started accessing retail clinics and urgent care centers. Healthcare largely went digital, and it reinforced a consumer preference in the process: Give me convenience or I'll find a company that can. And part of delivering convenience is understanding that in the Next Normal, decentralized business models powered by digital technologies is the only viable path for sustained relevance. 

Unless they want to lose patients and revenues to savvy new competitors, from Walmart and Walgreens to Teladoc, health systems must create a "new exceptional" for care delivery by going digital and embracing patient and enterprise engagement. That requires investments in a virtual walled garden, with all of the digital tools that patients now expect and behind-the-scenes innovations that keep staff happy. This also requires a single source of truth about stakeholders - patients, care givers, administration, providers - accessible to those responsible for delivering the best quality of care. In addition, health systems need to lower costs along the way. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to every company thinking like a healthcare company and the rise of chief medical officer.  As the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Salesforce, Dr. Ashwini Zenooz is a member of a new generation of corporate medical leaders with a seat in the C-suite. In that role, she prescribes a profound sense of empathy to patient-centered healthcare innovation. 

Dr. David Agus drives home the point: "No matter what your background is, health is at the forefront of every single person's mind. Every company needs someone, a leader, who will own this focus on health as a concept throughout the organization." 

So, what does the hospital as a digital company look like? And how can health systems pull off this transition for success during and long after the COVID-19 pandemic?

1. Complement existing services with digital patient journeys

Health systems must align their virtual walled garden with its physical counterpart and vice versa. Patients, for instance, benefit when their digital journeys complement their care.

Consider how Amazon customers know precisely where their package is, when it's due for delivery, and how it's getting to their door. Health systems should craft patient journeys—whether they're based on acquisition, care plan adherence, or awareness of a new line of service—with that level of empathy. Enhance the patient experience by informing and encouraging patients.

"Healthcare [innovation] is very much on the forefront for treatment —defining new robotics, medications and vaccines to prevent and cure diseases, but it's late to the game when it comes to improving the patient experience with technology," says Dr. Jose Quesada, Global Head of Healthcare at Salesforce and a former CMO of both Cigna and Bupa Global.

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COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for telemedicine and healthcare provider digital transformation aimed at extending the reach of providers. 

2. Provide better virtual care

COVID-19 brought relaxed rules on virtual care reimbursement and tighter restrictions on who gets to step foot inside the physical clinic. But health systems require technology to deliver care virtually or inside a patient's home. A hospital at home solution is key to scaling quality care beyond the walls of the traditional healthcare provider physical capacity. 

Patients need the ability to check in digitally, no matter where they are. A robust remote care program saves money by eliminating brick-and-mortar expenses and better supports patients, who can choose when and where they access care and receive support from family members and caregivers. Virtual care and the tools that enable it should play a core role in any technology strategy.

3. Modernize healthcare access centers

When patients are remote, they turn to apps and phone calls for answers. Health systems need to reimagine their access centers to support that behavior. That means implementing the data and technology infrastructure to support digital bookings, insurance verification, patient questions, and even smartphone-enabled bill pay.

At the same time, health systems must connect staffers who work from home rather than in a call center. Technology empowers a distributed workforce to do their jobs, without the headaches and risk of infection.

4. Improve population health

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Sure, patients need transactional care, but they must embark on a journey that will keep them healthy over the long term. Health systems can use digital tools to focus on preventive care, from mammograms to flu shots, and chronic care management. A strong patient engagement platform ensures adherence to those steps, protecting the patient population from avoidable risk.

Population health extends beyond clinical data. Using analytics and social determinants of health data, health systems can identify which patients are likely to fall off their care plan. That knowledge allows healthcare providers to take action before a misstep occurs.

5. Reduce per-capita healthcare costs

Somehow, all of this innovation can't increase healthcare costs. In fact, given health systems' tight margins, spend needs to drop.

The key lies in selecting an integrated technology platform that works smoothly across all aspects of the operation. Health systems that drop the ball here will spend a bunch of money integrating their technology down the road.

But healthcare providers that succeed will benefit from virtual care revenues, the ability to provide care in lower-cost settings such as the home, and the savings that stem from healthy patients.

6. Fight clinician burnout and infection

Before COVID-19 appeared, clinicians were facing high burnout rates. Long shifts and constant danger threaten to worsen the problem. New tools can help identify employees who are working too often, which enables administrators to give them a break. It's all about being proactive, not reactive.

Health systems also need to keep their staff members safe, from COVID-19 and other infections that spread through hospitals. Employee contact tracing and quarantining can be performed through the right technology platform. So can scheduling and on-boarding new staffers to fill in the gaps. This is critical now, and it will be when the next outbreak hits.

Commit Your Health System to the Patient

Imagine a future in which patients tap their phone and understand where they are in their healthcare journey. That vision—of connecting patients to care and information when and where they choose—is what going digital is all about. When health systems focus on lowering costs and boosting patient satisfaction, everyone wins.

But this transformation doesn't simply happen. Although health systems are seeing their surgical revenues rebound from COVID-19 restrictions, emergency department volumes remain about 75 percent of their pre-pandemic cap. It turns out that not all patients see a need to return to the complexities and inconveniences of the healthcare system.

Healthcare organizations must invest in a stronger digital system. Acting on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic must become a strategic priority. Otherwise, hospitals could face the same challenges that doomed brick-and-mortar shops when digital retail became king.


This article is co-authored by Dr. Geeta Nayyar, executive medical director at Salesforce. Dr. Nayyar is a nationally recognized leader in healthcare information technology, a physician executive, a frequently sought-after public speaker, and an author with unique perspectives that bridge clinical medicine, business, communications, and digital health. Dr. Nayyar currently serves as executive medical director for Salesforce, connecting North American enterprise health systems to the technologies that empower hospitals, enhance the work of physicians, and improve patient care.