Health systems plan for digital transformation, but need to pick up the pace

The HIMSS 2022 Future of Healthcare report said many will still be developing their digital plans in five years. If they wait too long, younger consumers could pick other retail options.

Almost every healthcare system is planning for a digital transformation within the next five years, but that may be too late.

Health systems are going to need to accelerate their digital plans if they want to engage younger customers who are willing to embrace new competitors in the marketplace. That’s the key takeaway in the new HIMSS 2022 Future of Healthcare report, released Wednesday. (HIMSS is the acronym for the Health Information and Management Systems Society.)

“Almost every US and international healthcare system intends to be in some stage of digital transformation by 2026-2027,” the report states. “Those that take too long to launch or advance, however, may find younger patients have moved on – to rivals and retailers already embracing more modern care models.”

Five years from now, more than half (54%) of U.S. health organizations expect to be in the planning stages of their digital transformation, while 46% said they expected to be implementing those changes.

Among international health systems, under half (44%) said they expected to still be developing digital transformation plans, and 56% expected to be moving forward.

HIMSS produced the report with its trust partners: Accenture, The Chartis Group and ZS. The research was done during November and December of 2021. The study involved participants in the United States and four other countries: the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Those participating in the study included 359 clinicians, 1,600 patients, 273 health system leaders and 145 representatives of payer organizations.

Not feeling ready

During a HIMSS panel discussing the implications of the report Wednesday afternoon, leaders of the trust partners behind the study all stressed that health systems have to accept that the industry is changing rapidly. They projected greater demands for personalized care and easier usage of the healthcare system for consumers.

“Health systems are working toward digital transformation,” said Thomas Kiesau, chief innovation officer and digital leader of The Chartis Group. “In the next five years, they’ll have to get to materially using these capabilities.”

For now, Kiesau said, “Health system executives do not feel ready yet.”

About 90% of health systems are planning to offer digital-first primary care and remote patient monitoring within the next five years, according to the study. Nearly half of U.S. health systems said they anticipate being able to offer digital specialty care in five years, compared to about 20% today.

Health systems face growing competition, as evidenced by Amazon’s entry into primary care with its $3.9 billion purchase of One Medical last month. About three out of four payers surveyed said they expect retail clinics to play a significant role in healthcare in the next five years.

HIMSS estimates health app usage to manage certain health conditions will increase by 33% or more in the next three to five years.

About 40% of all health system leaders surveyed said they expect high competition with big technology firms, including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Almost half (44%) of U.S. health providers said they expect they will be collaborating with competitors to deliver personalized care.

“Health systems can’t possibly retain every element of … the health consumer interaction,” Kiesau said.

In a changing healthcare landscape, health systems are going to have to identify the areas where they can excel and focus on those areas, he said.

“The practical consideration is the health system can’t be ready to fight on every battle front,” Kiesau said.

Home-based healthcare programs, including acute care at home, will be increasingly important, Keisau said.

Doctors going digital

Doctors see the value in digital tools to improve healthcare, the HIMSS survey found.

According to the study, 70% of clinicians said digitally enabled, patient-centered tools would be useful in managing diseases. Nearly two-thirds of clinicians (64%) said digital tools would lead to better coordination of care, while 60% said those tools would have value in preventative care and screenings.

Physicians generally believe patients will embrace using digital health tools in the near future. Overall, about three-quarters (76%) of the clinicians surveyed said patients will be willing to use digital health tools within five years.

It’s worth noting there is a difference in expectations. More than half (54%) of the clinicians said a majority of patients would use digital tools, but 22% said only a small share of patients would be willing to use them.

Physicians are going to need to be trained to use digital health tools effectively, Darryl Gibbings-Isaac, a senior manager in Accenture's Health Strategy Practice, said in the HIMSS forum.

“If they don’t understand how to use them,” he said, “how can they put them to work for their patients?”

Health systems also need to work with doctors in selecting digital tools so they embrace technology and products that mesh with their workflows and help them save time, Gibbings-Isaac said.

“Health systems should make sure digital tools serve clinician needs,” he said, adding, “We need to involve clinicians in the right digital tools that will save time.”

Health systems should provide incentives to ensure doctors are using those digital tools, he said.

‘Personalization of care models’

Payers are moving toward “the personalization of care models,” Shreesh Tiwari, principal and data and technology leader at ZS Associates, said during the forum.

“The consumer expectations are rising,” Tiwari said. “All of us want to consume healthcare the way we consume other services.”

Over the next five years, 69% of U.S. payers said they plan to offer personalized wellness visits and health counseling.

Health information exchanges are going to play a critical role in improving health care, Tiwari said.

“Health information exchanges are sitting on a goldmine of data,” he said. “As it gets shared, it’s going to create value for our members and for consumers.”

Focusing on equity

The report notes the potential of the digital transformation of healthcare to improve health equity, giving consumers more access to clinicians.

However, clinicians are concerned that if tools and technology aren’t utilized carefully, health inequities could be exacerbated. The federal government issued a report earlier this year noting some members of minority groups were less likely to use video telehealth services.

“Health equity has to be at the forefront of digital transformation,” Gibbings-Isaac said.

As health systems use more digital tools, everyone will have to be trained on them, including patients, he said.

Health systems and technology firms need to consider human-centered design principles, including those who aren’t tech savvy and may not have high levels of reading. Health systems also need to work with their communities as they attempt to employ digital solutions to address disparities in healthcare.

“Health equity is a team sport,” Gibbings-Isaac said.