Telehealth Leadership: An Overview

May 12, 2020
Now is the time for health systems to fully launch their telehealth programs and many leaders have commented that there is no turning back

Unlike the novel coronavirus, telehealth has been around for decades waiting for its moment to take center stage and more broadly improve quality and access to care. Its history is interesting to note as some provider organizations, especially those in rural areas, have been delivering healthcare services remotely since the early 2000s. Technology has certainly advanced significantly since then, especially from a connectivity standpoint, but who would have thought that telehealth was going to jump to the top of healthcare providers' priority list and be the driving force to help combat a surging pandemic in 2020?

Before COVID-19, telehealth was gaining steam as part of the digital platform that healthcare organizations were planning to launch or mature. However, it took a crisis to show its true value as an essential aspect of the future healthcare ecosystem. "What has been remarkable to see is how positively clinical care providers have 'bought in,' even some that were quite pessimistic about virtual visits in the past," says Daniel Nigrin, M.D., Senior Vice President and CIO at Boston Children's Hospital.

With regulatory and reimbursement obstacles relaxed, now is the time for health systems to fully launch their telehealth programs and many leaders have commented that there is no turning back. Alistair Erskine, M.D., Chief Digital Officer at Partners HealthCare, states, "There is no doubt that telehealth will be intercalated into our new 'normal' by virtualizing situational awareness and access across the populations we serve and helping us respond more rapidly to future threats."

For many organizations, the focus will be scaling virtual services beyond what they have in place currently. The need is urgent to quickly expand their capabilities to enable home visiting services and remote monitoring, which is a critical effort to the COVID-19 response. Countrywide adoption of telehealth is being buoyed at the federal level with new, supportive regulation and funding. With a dedicated workforce and financial support, health systems are rapidly responding to build out their telehealth infrastructure.

Who will lead telehealth initiatives?

Similar to past crises, leadership plays a critical role again in responding to a challenging situation. Health systems are relying on their leaders to be flexible and agile in planning and deploying telehealth in record time. Looking across organizations, there is no blueprint on the structure in leading telehealth. Depending on the organization, telehealth services are being overseen by:

  • CIO
  • Chief Digital Officer
  • CMIO
  • COO, CMO or other business or clinical operations leader
  • VP, Telehealth or Chief Telehealth Officer

Whoever oversees this function, what is consistent is that IT, digital along with business and clinical operations teams are working collaboratively to execute effectively in a timely manner and on a secure platform. Another key area of importance is providing training to create a seamless and convenient experience for clinicians and their patients.

As noted, many health systems have hired or are in the process of recruiting senior-level leaders such as Vice President, Telehealth, Chief Telehealth Officer and Chief Digital Officer. Many progressive and visionary health systems have had telemedicine leadership in place. They enable the overall strategic plan to leverage telemedicine as a critical tool for improving the value of population health management and improving access to care.

The candidate profiles for these roles vary as organizations are seeking leaders with operations, IT or clinical backgrounds with demonstrated experience implementing and leading telehealth programs. Important attributes of those leaders advancing telehealth are the ability to work effectively with internal and external business partners to develop a vision, processes and deliverables. Implementing a telehealth structure and identifying the most efficient work processes to improve the patient experience and eliminate costs and redundancies are key.

Relevant background for telehealth leaders can include healthcare innovation, strategy, change management, process improvement, technology integration, and project management. These leaders will play a pivotal role in transforming how care is delivered by establishing telehealth operations that meet the needs of the healthcare industry now and into the future.

Nicholas (Nick) Giannas is a consultant for global executive search firm WittKieffer's Information Technology Practice. Hillary Ross is a senior partner with the firm and leader of the IT Practice. WittKieffer is a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in healthcare, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector.

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