Healthcare Execs Name Biggest Challenges to Digital Health Adoption

Jennifer E. Engen

A new C-Suite survey by West Monroe finds that health system leaders looking to establish a digital health strategy are challenged most by attracting and keeping IT talent and understanding how to define digital health.

Workforce shortages in the healthcare industry aren’t limited to clinical care. A new survey finds that more than a third of health system leaders are worried about how to staff and maintain their IT departments.

The Q2 C-Suite Healthcare Poll, issued this month by West Monroe, finds that health systems are faced with unique challenges in expanding their digital health footprint, beginning with increased competition and including a difference of opinion on definitions.

According to the survey, some 34% of C-Suite executives said their biggest challenge when activating digital strategies was in attracting and retaining talent for digital health. And when asked for the biggest impacts from inflation, 68 percent picked wages and another 59 percent selected talent recruiting or retention.

This comes at a time when the healthcare industry is expanding, largely due to the advent of digital health and telehealth platforms that are attracting new players to the sandbox. Health systems now have to contend with competitors using virtual health to attract new business, as well as stand-alone clinics, retail giants like Amazon, Google and CVS Health, and telehealth companies with their own ranks of providers.

The topic came up at the recent American Telemedicine Association conference in Boston, during which Joseph Kvedar, a Harvard Medical School professor and longtime digital health expert, pointed out that there’s an ongoing “battle for primary care.”

Some experts say that healthcare will struggle to attract and keep IT talent because health systems don’t have the budgets to pay those people at the same rate as Amazon, Google or even many healthcare IT companies.

Aside from staffing the IT department to handle digital health initiatives, some 32 percent of executives surveyed by West Monroe said their biggest challenge is a lack of industry consensus on the definition of digital health. This points to a long-standing challenge facing the healthcare industry: The many names and phrases associated with innovative technology, including telehealth, telemedicine, mHealth, digital health, connected health, virtual care, telecare, i-health, and mobile health. Add to that the nuances of remote patient monitoring, remote physiological monitoring and remote therapeutic monitoring, as well as telemental health, telebehavioral health, and so many other tele-services, and the list grows.

The problem isn’t just with semantics. Payers (including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) often have specific definitions for the services they will or won’t cover, and a healthcare provider who defines digital health or telehealth differently risks losing out on reimbursement. Likewise, how a certain service is defined may affect how it’s managed, staffed and budgeted.

Aside from those two issues, the third challenges identified by healthcare executives in activating digital strategies is a lack of alignment of business and technical priorities, cited by 18% of those surveyed. This number may rise as more healthcare organizations adopt value-based care and struggle with how to identify the value of the digital health program.

Beyond that, according to the survey, 6% identified technology debt and 5% cited identifying, building, and governing uses cases.

“Taken together, an entire 84% of respondents indicated that the industry is facing fundamental misalignments when it comes to digital health,” the West Monroe survey states. “This dramatically underscores the need we see for redirecting some of the attention away from fancy technologies and focusing on conceptual and operational readiness to bring those technologies in the healthcare fold. Only in this way will those technologies make the impacts they’re designed to make—and make them continuously over time.”

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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