Next-Generation IT

Digital health strategy for CEOs: Core elements to focus on

With competition seemingly coming from every direction, health care organizations need a digital strategy now — and succeeding will require that CEOs take the lead in making such initiatives a priority.

Tom Sullivan | April 28, 2021

Digital health competition and consumer demands are increasingly challenging health care organizations while millions of people are using health apps and thereby creating new opportunities to increase engagement and consumer loyalty.

At the same time, COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of next-generation IT in health care and while that is well understood this deep into the pandemic, an altogether different circumstance may very well impact the future of health systems and health plans: new entrants.

“For our digital-first competitors and disruptors in particular, COVID-19 paid the marketing tab they would otherwise have had to invest in convincing patients and consumers to try and adopt their solutions,” said Aaron Martin, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Providence. “So it not only accelerated the industry, but it also empowered a lot of these big disruptors as well as small disruptors coming into the market.

That reality will only add to the competitive pressure CEOs are facing. What’s more, preliminary Health Evolution research determined that approximately 50 percent of health care organizations have an executive dedicated entirely to digital health while the other half do not.

To help CEOs understand which aspects of digital transformation to concentrate their leadership on either at the outset or en route to becoming more mature digital organizations, during the Health Evolution Forum Town Hall virtual event Forum Fellows outlined the following aspects of a digital strategy:

    • Defining a digital portfolio
    • Understanding the competitive landscape
    • Partnering with external organizations
    • Ensuring that the digital strategy is omni-channel
    • Creating a culture of innovation
    • Investing in your own digital brand

“It’s clear that a digital revolution is happening across our industry and while we may have been slow to the digital parade, we are making up for lost time,” said Nancy Agee, President & CEO, Carilion Clinic. “The CEO must be engaged such that digital health transformation is a priority. This work can’t be put off to the side of someone’s desk.”

Defining a digital portfolio
One of the initial challenges that Agee encountered was determining what should be included in Carilion’s digital portfolio. She and her team divided the initiative into two broad domains: virtual care including telemedicine and asynchronous visits and the digital front door, which encompassed app utilization and development as well as patient education using short video and bots where applicable. “Once these domains were established, stakeholders were identified to help develop an overall system strategy and a roadmap,” Agee said. That included councils for consumerism and virtual care to build strategic integration. “These two groups challenged us to remove barriers and are beginning to build a digital culture across our full system.”

I can’t emphasize enough that this is something for all parts of the health system to take incredibly seriously. Even if you think your market is not going to be impacted immediately, consider yourself super-fortunate — and get on it.

Aaron Martin, Providence

Understanding the competitive landscape
Martin believes that the two most disruptive models generally will be digital first providers of care (there are many models) and national payor/providers. Both require a robust digital response. “Digital first disruptors like Amazon, 98point6 and so on will force us to invest heavily in our digital-first experiences at scale for consumers who are out shopping for care,” Martin added. “National Payor/Providers will require a tighter integrated digital experience between a health systems captive payor or regional payor partners.” As part of its competitive assessment, Providence also talks to two or three health systems every week, constantly learning and trading notes on what those other health systems are doing with respect to digital efforts and the consumer journey as well as understanding how their markets are evolving from a competitive standpoint.

Partnering with external organizations
The discipline of co-opetition is not widely practiced in health care but technology companies are accustomed to partnering with one area or business of a competitor while continuing to ruthlessly challenge the same company on other fronts. “Health care companies need to adopt that mindset because otherwise you’re leaving a lot of value on the table because one organization may be competing with you in some other area,” Martin said. Providence, for its part, has forged partnerships with Microsoft while also employing 120 software engineers to develop new digital capabilities that become products if not companies that are spun out. Providence evaluates whether potential partners are enablers of its business, are marketplaces or are competitors/disruptors. “That doesn’t mean you can’t partner with all three,” Martin added. “It just means you need to be clear-eyed about what their goal is and how they’re going to go to market.”

Ensuring that the digital strategy is omni-channel
With a defined digital portfolio, competitive assessment and plan for partnerships, CEOs should also recognize that digital health initiatives must be aligned with as many other aspects of the business as possible. To achieve that alignment, executives will need to develop internal capabilities and external services, integrate digital into care delivery and business models, drive seamless consumer experience across channels, and cultivate consumer engagement that, in turn, drives digital growth. “You need to have some central control, but for digital transformation to be successful, it needs to be ubiquitous across the organization,” said Hal Paz, MD, Executive Vice President & Chancellor for Health Affairs at The Ohio State University and Chief Executive Officer at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. At Carilion Clinic, Agee said the digital health leaders include the CIO, chief administrative officer, chief medical officer, chief nursing officer, a VP for marketing and the director of digital health. “There were many synergies between the groups and we recognize the need for a common omni-channel platform for many of the tools to support a successful digital platform for transformation,” Agee said.

Creating a culture of innovation
Building an omni-channel digital strategy that encompasses a broad swath of business functions also creates the opportunity to instill innovation into the enterprise in new ways. “We want to encourage innovation and adoption,” Paz said. “You want to have a culture that really supports and celebrates innovation broadly across the organization. It’s a little bit like the push and pull we have today with IT. We go through this all the time. There’s the chief IT officer and their domain and what they can improve and what they can’t improve. This is not all that dissimilar, quite frankly.” Just as most organizations have a CIO in charge of IT more broadly, a digital health champion is necessary as well. Whether that person reports directly to the CEO, the CIO or another member of the C-suite will vary from one organization to the next. What matters most is having a point person in place to drive an innovative culture rather than one-off digital apps or technology initiatives that only impact specific business units.

Investing in your own digital brand
Marketing platforms considered sophisticated in health care are often standard practice elsewhere. Martin said the foundational need is for health care organizations to create awareness, manage inbound opportunities such as someone expressing a particular preference via search on Google, outbound marketing where you are trying to anticipate or even predict when someone will need care services, and then search engine optimization and search engine marketing. “Those tools are very useful, not only in a PPO environment where people are shopping for care and where you’re trying to shift share between health systems but also in a population health context as well,” Martin added. “We’re starting to experiment with them under narrow networks and a lot of these models are not too different than population health models. They predict needs and close care gaps.”

The Health Evolution Forum, which discussed these CEO-level aspects of developing a digital health strategy during the aforementioned Forum Town Hall virtual event, consists of more than 200 CEOs of health systems, health plans and life sciences companies. Forum Fellows participate in Roundtables that oversee Work Groups, including the Work Group on Digital Health and App Experience, co-chaired by Agee and Martin. The Forum’s mission is to identify best practices working in parts of the industry and disseminate those more broadly to drive impactful change.

“Meaningful digital transformation hinges on leadership and governance as well as competitive positioning,” Agee said. Those are among the nine levers for driving digital maturity the Work Group identified and intends to distribute beyond the Forum Fellows moving forward.

Martin added: “I can’t emphasize enough that this is something for all parts of the health system to take incredibly seriously. Even if you think your market is not going to be impacted immediately, consider yourself super-fortunate — and get on it.” 

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, EVP & Editor-in-Chief of Digital Content

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website. Contact: or @SullyHIT on Twitter.