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Aaron Bours
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The Challenges of a Healthcare CIO in 2021 and How Conversational AI Can Solve Them

Ultimately, the coveted role of the healthcare CIO in 2021 is both enviable and unenviable. On the one hand, healthcare CIOs are part of something exhilarating. They're driving 90MPH at the busy intersection where technological innovation meets medicine. The decisions they make not only change the landscape of the delivery of healthcare but have very real, measurable impacts on the lives of patients. 


On the other hand, the challenges healthcare CIOs face can be daunting. Technology is advancing rapidly, and the CIO role needs to evolve at the same pace to keep up. With significant decisions comes great responsibility—and pressure. 


No matter which way you look at it, CIOs play a vital role in modern healthcare, and the challenges they face need to be overcome. But fear not—conversational AI could provide the answer. 

The Evolution of the Healthcare CIO Role

Some roles are easy to define because we're very familiar with them. For example, if you were to ask a random person on the street what an accountant does, you'd likely get a litany of confident answers. Why? Because accountants have been around since the days of Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra's definition of an accountant wouldn't be miles away from yours or mine, although whether she would answer such a question from a peasant in strange clothes is another matter. 


However, some roles are much newer and have evolved rapidly since they were invented. The role of Chief Information Officer (CIO) is one such role. 


So, what is a CIO? The role was first defined in 1981 but has gone through significant shifts as the healthcare landscape has shifted. There wasn't a strong focus on clinical IT within healthcare in the first few decades after the role's inception. Sure, IT played a role, but nowhere near on the scale it does today. An early-day healthcare CIO was more similar to an IT engineer - their role centered around implementing new software and hardware and installing servers. In other words, it was a very hands-on, technology-focused role with a relatively narrow scope. 


However, with the advent of electronic health records (EHRs), this started to shift. EHRs have become an integral part of healthcare in the modern day to the point they are almost ubiquitous. But this transition wasn't without its challenges. Firstly, managing EHRs required a strong collaboration with Operational IT and the policy and governance teams. Secondly, and most critically, it required a shift in mindset from operations to strategy. This is where the role of the modern CIO bloomed. 


Today, the healthcare CIO is responsible for facilitating how IT can be used to enable the delivery of patient care and improve patient outcomes. Due to the rise in advanced IT systems, the cloud, AI, and data analysis, the role is now far less operational and more strategic. 


To illustrate how much the CIO role has changed since its operational beginnings, consider this recent study by leading research firm, Gartner. 84% of the more than 3000 CIOs surveyed said they have responsibilities outside of traditional IT, the most common being transformation and innovation. The survey also found that CIOs were measured more on business outcomes than IT delivery. 


Commenting on this survey, Gartner Vice President Andy Rowsell Jones said, "CIOs are on the road from digital experimentation to digital scaling,." 


CIOs are critical to the modern healthcare environment, and their impact can't be understated. They're now the expert orchestrators of new strategies that define the next generation of patient care.

Modern Challenges Healthcare CIOs Are Facing Today 

Security and Privacy 

Computers are cheaper than ever, and the internet has made previously inaccessible knowledge available with a few clicks. The result? The barrier to entry for hackers is at an all-time low, and the tools they need to cause destruction are more powerful and affordable than ever. 


Healthcare providers are lucrative targets for hackers, and ransomware attacks and data breaches are alarmingly common. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2020,  more than 1 million people were affected by data breaches every month at healthcare organizations


For CIOs, the challenge becomes how to implement new technology at scale without increasing security risk. While this risk can apply to a CIO in any organization, healthcare CIOs' unique position adds significant pressure. Put simply, the stakes are much higher in healthcare. 

Telehealth and Digitization

In the digital age, patients want 24-hour immediate access to healthcare providers. In addition, they want telehealth  (accessing healthcare remotely through telecommunications, apps, etc.) to be available on demand. 


It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this desire for remote and readily accessible healthcare services. Telehealth became the natural answer in a world where visiting a doctor in person posed a health risk. 


Over the last decade, digitization has become a significant focus for healthcare organizations, to the point where today, very few (if any) processes are still done on paper. 


For CIOs, the challenge is how to usher in more digitization and telehealth services at scale and in a way that patients will engage with. Implementing telehealth systems has its own unique challenges. For example, a video-chat system isn't advantageous if patients have to jump through a lot of hoops to use it. Similarly, a janky chatbot can create more problems than it solves. Essentially, implementing new technology is often less about 'what it can do' and more about 'how people use it/how easy it is to use'. 

Patient Engagement

Today, there's a much greater pressure for CIOs to focus on technology or strategy that will improve the patient experience. Patient experience was often thought of as a 'nice to have' rather than an essential in the past. Things couldn't be more different today. We now know that good patient experience is linked to better patient outcomes. It is also critical to a provider's ability to attract and retain patients in an increasingly competitive healthcare market. 


Knowing where to funnel resources to improve patient experience continues to be a major challenge for CIOs. 


This list of challenges isn’t exhaustive, but rather meant to focus on the most critical challenges faced by healthcare CIOs in 2021. 

Conversational AI to the Rescue

Okay, it's time to fix these challenges, but first, let's remind ourselves what conversational AI is and what it isn't. 


Conversational AI isn't a chatbot, or at least, it isn't like the chatbots you've used 100s of times before. Chatbots are pre-programmed, often scripted, and bound by rules. And it shows! Chatbots have been the source of much frustration in the digital age. By contrast, conversational AI, sometimes called Adaptive Communications, is a new approach to digital conversational interfaces. Conversational AI's foundations lie in advanced language-based techniques like computational linguistics. This means that rather than following a program, the AI instead models human language to communicate with anyone effectively. 


Now, let's look at how conversational AI can overcome the challenges healthcare CIOs face today. 


Security and Privacy 

The 2017 ransomware attack on the National Health Service (NHS) in England resulted in close to 8000 canceled appointments. It was later found that the impacted healthcare centers were those with outdated technology and poor security policies. Although cybersecurity is standardized across the NHS, some hospitals and clinics could not implement best practices due to the antiquated systems. 


So, what's this got to do with Conversational AI? Implementing new technology provides an opportunity to patch security concerns and move towards safer handling of patient data. 


Telehealth and Digitization

Conversational AI can take on the bulk of administrative and routine healthcare questions that eat up medical professionals' time. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic created a situation where the entire population needed to be informed on a public health issue and adapt their behavior responsibly. If doctors, nurses, and other professionals have to answer straightforward questions about the nature of the virus, how people should protect themselves, and so on, it draws them away from urgent or critical tasks. However, not answering these questions can lead to increased public anxiety or poor public health outcomes that ultimately put more pressure on hospitals. 


Conversational AI solutions can be on hand to answer these questions at any time of the day. And that's precisely what happened during the pandemic - many hospitals implemented COVID-19 chatbots to ease the pressure on medical professions. 


A COVID-19 chatbot is just one example. Conversational AI can overcome telehealth and digitization challenges in other ways too:


  • Facilitate appointment bookings. 
  • Reduce friction and pain points by delivering the correct information to patients quickly. 
  • Conversational AI ushers in cost savings by reducing the need for costly human labor. 
  • Patients can access medical information at any time of day and via their preferred communication channel. 
  • Conversational AI is highly integrated with other information systems and can draw data from multiple sources. This means the information it provides to patients is comprehensive and up to date. 


Patient Engagement

Conversational AI can become the fully automated customer-facing communicator. Rather than being a purely reactive chatbot, it becomes a proactive hub for patient engagement. Conversational AI can reach out to the patient to inform them about the latest care plans, news, or exciting developments they might be interested in. 

Implementing an Adaptive Digital Transformation Strategy in Healthcare

The top priority for any forward-thinking healthcare CIO needs to be choosing technology that can scale. There's no use going through a digital transformation every few years, but that's exactly what many organizations are at risk of doing if they just update old technology or continually buy new. In addition, buying new software often requires a considerable amount of tinkering in order to get it working right for your organization. And then there's the costly and time-consuming maintenance. 


Instead, the focus should be on adaptive technology - tools that will seamlessly scale as the organization grows and evolves. An Adaptive Communications Platform, like Hyro's, is built on a foundation of linguistics and knowledge. This sets it apart from more rigid intent-based conversational systems that struggle to adapt and scale. Instead, it learns human language first (and all of its nuances) and then develops a comprehensive suite of use cases through experience. It's a technology designed to get better the more time it spends with the organization, and it's not meant to be replaced. 

Top Strategies for Building a Digital Patient Experience

Self Service and Automation

A considerable part of the patient experience is feelings of empowerment. Engaging with healthcare services is often anxiety-inducing for one simple reason - patients have to hand over control and let someone else make the decisions. 


Providing automation self-service technology, like conversational AI chatbots, allows patients to take control of their health and engage on their own terms. Conversational AI systems transform patient access, making it easier than ever for patients to access their health records, ask questions, and schedule appointments. 

Human-like AI

Talking to a chatbot that doesn't understand you is beyond maddening. And in a healthcare setting, it can be disastrous.


Conversational AI is an excellent asset in healthcare, but the AI must understand all the complexities of human language. In other words, it needs to communicate in a way that is indistinguishable from a human. It needs to understand dialects, language quirks, intent, and sentiment. 

Conversational Intelligence

You can't improve the patient experience without knowing how your patients are and what they want. Luckily, these answers lie within the data harnessed from Adaptive Communication Platforms. An Adaptive Communications Platform conducts thousands of patient interactions every day. These interactions provide valuable insights into the patient population, including the most requested services, topics raised, and frequently asked questions. It can also provide insights into how patients prefer to engage, which solutions resonate with which patients, etc. 

Final Thoughts

Being a CIO in today's increasingly demanding healthcare environment isn't easy. However, for every challenge, there's a solution just waiting to be implemented. The most promising solution for CIOs in 2021 is conversational AI. 


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Aaron Bours
October 3, 2021
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