Ahmad Kakar, Director of IT at Adventist Health, shares how IT departments at hospitals adapted to the reality of COVID-19, how the role of healthcare IT has changed, and what role IT can play in helping hospitals bring back revenue in 2021.
The year started out with strategic initiatives and moving the needle on how we can effectively deliver solutions. Our 2020 strategy map included many different areas of growth and transformation—ultimately leading to effective business operations and enhancing the way care is delivered. Part of our journey remained on course, for example enabling a remote workforce. In other areas, we had to shift our priorities due to COVID. We helped eliminate a lot of barriers to that initially (e.g., financing, reluctance for users to adopt either multi-factor authentication, VPN issues) because of the stay-at-home orders that were issued by the state. There was a dramatic increase in employees working remotely, all of which requires the right level of access and ensuring security standards are met. There was a change of pace in our environment at the hospital, a new normal was quickly identified and tasks were reprioritized. We had novel requests come in to address the new needs of the business, most of these tasks were related to COVID & surge planning.
Then we transitioned into the more manageable workload between the summer and fall, we saw an opportunity to go back and work on our projects. Right around Thanksgiving, November/December, things completely went back to what they were like in March, if not worse. Fortunately the prep work that was done in March put us in a better place to handle the winter surge. We successfully deployed and solidified our telehealth platform throughout the enterprise. COVID did dramatically decrease the normal timeline for certain applications to be deployed, what normally may have been a multi-year plan was completed in months. This accelerated pace along with the learnings is something we’re hoping to take with us into 2021 and beyond.
We had to take a pause on growing our business because of the focus on operations. Like many other hospitals, we also experienced a decline in revenue, additionally we noticed a decline in those coming in to get care - our members and patients were worried about contracting COVID for what might have been a trivial visit. To help solve this problem our IT & Marketing teams came together and launched a campaign encouraging everyone to get care.
Did extra requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a more supportive relationship between IT and the business in your industry?
It most certainly did! We are a geographically dispersed enterprise with 40,000+ employees, while that can be difficult to navigate, every single hospital came together to work alongside enterprise resources to help ensure IT & business units were running in parallel with their needs. Relationships have gotten stronger, in some ways this pandemic afforded opportunities to connect with different business leaders. In other aspects, both business teams and technology teams got to better understand each other and their workflows, along with the importance of certain processes and the meaning behind them.
From a local hospital perspective, it’s without a doubt that IT gained increased visibility and formed new relationships with stakeholders since last year.
The same applies to our enterprise shared services perspective, since there's so many teams involved that create and deploy applications, and provide access - all of which were services that stakeholders needed in an expedited fashion due to COVID. Both local and enterprise IT teams were crucial in providing services all across the board.
Things quickly moved for IT as soon as the EUA was granted by the FDA, IT was responsible for setting up the core infrastructure to be able to track the vaccine deployment. We needed to add tracking, compliance, scheduling modules throughout our hospital system to help with the initial rollout. Currently all of our vaccination data is flowing into our enterprise systems to track progress throughout our entire healthcare system.
For hospitals, what are the biggest security concerns going into 2021?
Security in a healthcare setting is always a top priority, from ensuring the security of the new products we deploy, ensuring the vendors we work with don’t add unnecessary risk, the list can be quite extensive. Areas that are top of mind to us are ransomware, phishing campaigns, inadvertent actions by employees, devices being added to the network without proper authorizations.
Given there are several areas of concern, our approach needs to be unified from an enterprise perspective. Security is not only an IT issue, but rather all our employees are stewards to ensure we are keeping the valuable data being stored safeguarded.
The importance of security will continue to be communicated in the upcoming year, we’ve already seen reputable organizations have their data compromised and that’s raised a few concerns throughout the IT community - imagine the breaches that don’t make it to the newspapers, it’s a never ending ordeal.
Hospitals lost a lot of revenue due to Covid. How can IT play a role in helping to bring back revenue this year?
IT is in the driver’s seat to help with revenue as much as any other business unit. IT can lead the effort by exploring and working with the business to help implement new marvels in technology that can reduce human intervention required or remove manual workflows, which ultimately gives valuable time back to our staff. We’ve already seen this in action by utilizing RPA - this is just one example of how IT can help with revenues.
There's a lot of opportunities that are there. And so it's how we provide business value at the end of the day. It's how we make changes locally in our hospital from procuring devices, to consulting on solutions - and ultimately becoming experts in how the business is run. It's very simple to take a step back and just focus on the operational components of IT, but if we become proactive, communicate and round with our business leaders we can then truly help them reengineer processes.