The Expanding Healthcare Chief Digital Officer Role: An Update

July 26, 2022
Nick Giannas, a principal in the Information Technology Practice at WittKieffer, shares insights on why the Chief Digital Officer function is becoming so important in today’s patient care organizations

A few years ago, I wrote about the expansion of digital innovation in healthcare and how different healthcare providers were implementing a variety of strategies to address their digital needs from a leadership perspective. Some organizations were beginning to hire a dedicated Chief Digital Officer, while others were incorporating their digital responsibilities into the role of the Chief Information Officer. These were just two of many approaches.

"There is no clear blueprint yet," I wrote then. A few years later, that is still mostly true. Digital responsibilities and strategies continue to evolve and health systems are taking different approaches to developing a leadership structure for these responsibilities.

As I noted, some have created a Chief Digital Officer role while others have expanded the CIO's responsibilities effectively creating the Chief Digital and Information Officer (there are variations in title). In addition, other positions such as the Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Transformation Officer have impacted the structure and lines of responsibilities for digital. The reporting structures we see are mostly to the CEO depending on the level of the role and size of the organization, though some report to other operational leaders.

What the Digital Officer Can Do

Supporting the need for the creation of a dedicated leader over digital efforts, the following are four key responsibilities that a CDO (or other designated position) may be best suited to take ownership of:

·      Contributing broadly as the subject-matter leader for digital transformation and partnering with leadership across the organization to define the vision.

·       Developing a forward-thinking digital strategy and plan that is aligned with the mission, vision and strategic priorities of the organization.

·       Developing an integrated culture focused around innovation and creating a seamless, contemporary digital experience. This includes identifying and addressing internal and external user needs of patients/consumers, providers and staff.

·       Providing a roadmap for digital transformation that leverages emerging digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotic process automation.

Digital is "Survival"

To put some context behind the CDO market: At the end of 2018, we at WittKieffer were aware of approximately 20 "chiefs" of digital efforts at U.S. health systems. This compares to over 70 of these leaders that we are aware of today—some of those are pure "Chief Digital Officer" roles, while many others are CIOs who had "Digital" added to their titles. What is important is that someone has been designated as responsible for all digital initiatives. Over the past few years, this has been an emerging role that continues to be on the rise and increasingly recruited for position as health systems have shifted their focus to provide an exceptional experience for consumers, providers and employees powered by digital technology and innovation.

As I heard one digital leader say recently, "Digital is no longer differentiation. For hospitals, it's survival."

Industry Discussions

This past March, I attended a conference called ViVE (a collaboration between CHIME and HLTH) which brought together senior digital leaders, health startups and investors in healthcare. One of the top priorities discussed was the acceleration of digital in support of improving care health equity and business transformation. In addition, there was a lot of discussion on technology partnerships that are also on the rise in support of innovation efforts.

Among the health systems that have defined "digital health", their definitions vary from organization to organization. For example, one Chief Information & Digital Officer shared, "Digital health is the use of technology and data to engage or care for people anywhere on their health journey."

Another leader shared, "Digital health is the creation of value at the intersection of new business, consumer experiences and foundational capabilities that support the structure to enhance the efficiency of care delivery, while making it more personalized and empowering populations to manage their health and wellness."

There are many hospitals and health systems still trying to define what digital health means and that have not created an enterprise-wide strategy. In those environments, there is not a defined role for digital leading an integrated vision. Instead, there are one-off initiatives occurring without a coordinated approach that is aligned with the mission and priorities of the organization. As a result, we see situations where many leaders think they own digital but no one really does.

Key Questions to Consider

Overall, the recruitment for digital leaders continues to grow so the market is very dynamic as health systems are competing for top talent. Organizations that want to have a competitive advantage in recruiting executives to oversee their digital efforts must keep the following questions front and center:

  1. What are the key skill sets needed in a leader to drive digital innovation in our organization?
  2. Does the CIO role in our organization have the capacity and bandwidth to take on additional digital responsibilities? If so, does our current CIO have the expertise to lead digital initiatives?
  3. Will creating a new CDO position be best to lead and execute on digital transformation?
  4. If we create a CDO position, should the CIO and CDO roles be restructured, or should one position report to the other?
  5. If we create a new CDO position, do we promote someone from within or bring in external candidates from inside or outside of healthcare?

Clearly, these are all important questions that we have helped our clients navigate. At the outset, organizations must establish a role that will lead digital transformation to stay competitive and better serve their patient population and clinicians. Having a defined, integrated approach to digital requires the right leader to champion that strategy and execution.

Nick Giannas is a principal in the Information Technology Practice at WittKieffer.

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