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While health care leaders have been working to digitally transform for years, organizations have been deploying digital-first models more frequently, and with more successful results, since early 2020 than in the past. Consumers, in turn, are unlikely to accept a more traditional analog experience moving forward.  

“Whether a patient is trying to see a physician, sort out a health insurance matter or schedule an MRI, people want and need a better experience,” said William Winkenwerder, MD, Chairman, CitiusTech.  “People have seen they can get a better experience, with Amazon, with Uber or digital banking — and in health care the demand for digital is only getting stronger.”  

Winkenwerder participated in the 2022 Health Evolution Summit Outlook on Digital Strategies that Impact Consumer Experience, with Frank Ingari, CEO, Tandigm Health and Laurent Rotival, CIO and SVP, Strategic Technology Solutions, Cambia Health, that was facilitated by Julie Riley, Director, Health Evolution Forum.  

To inform CEOs and executives about how to approach digital strategies for improving the consumer experience, the experts discussed the following steps:  

    • Commit to the journey  
    • Lay a digital foundation  
    • Focus on simplicity  
    • Modernize legacy systems 
    • Upskill the workforce 

Commit to the journey 
Prior to embarking on an enterprise-wide digital transformation to improve consumer experience, CEOs and C-suites need to recognize that while the initiative is a competitive imperative, it will not happen as quickly as the team, or board, might hope it would.  

“Leaders need a long-term vision defined by outcomes that are ideally quantifiable. Those outcomes then need to be translated into a roadmap that, by definition, is three years at least,” Rotival said.   

While organizations can achieve small wins in the shorter-term, and those should not be discounted, three years will be a minimum for most leaders.  

“Digitizing all these processes, especially the consumer parts, is far more complex than booking an Airbnb,” Winkenwerder said. “Leaders need a long-term strategy to move in this direction.”  

Lay a digital foundation  
Whether it’s three, five or even ten years into the future, with a strategy in place executives will then need to move forward and that may mean adopting a new mindset.  

Broadly speaking, health care as an industry has the tendency to think of digital-first or digital health as a shiny app presented to consumers to create and sustain engagement. Ingari, however, challenged that notion by saying executives should focus first and foremost on creating a better consumer experience. “Instead of digital-first, it’s digital at the same time as traditional modalities or a digital foundation,” Ingari said. “It’s digital as an enabler of a good consumer experience as opposed to digital-first.” 

That is particularly important given the nature of the industry where the scale is so large, the variety of data types so extreme and the regulatory and human factors so intense, Ingari added, citing the use of decades-old COBOL code remaining prevalent (as it is in other industries as well).  

“For both health plans and health systems,” Winkenwerder added, improving the consumer experience “is not just putting a digital offering out there or building a digital front door. Now you have to think about the back end and how to tie together new offerings with legacy sources of data and data flows.”  

Focus on simplicity  
With a digital foundation either in place or underway, it is important for the teams digitizing the consumer experience to create something people will actually use rather than overly encompassing tools.    

Digital health is not just about an attractive web application, browser experience or mobile option.  

“Clearly, we all interact with other companies outside of health care and those experience are intuitive, easy and convenient,” Rotival said. He pointed to how airline apps enable passengers to check-in before even going to the airport, check baggage, or look at how many frequent flyer points are collected as an example of activities that would be very irritating to do in anything other than a digital format. 

Yet, in many instances a consumer’s first step is to call someone in health care, regardless of how frustrating and time consuming it can be. Interacting digitally is all too often a second or even third step.  

“As you start looking at building a personalized, empathetic, simple digital experience, you suddenly realize that you’re making many implicit and explicit promises similar to what we experience with airlines or retail shopping, and it’s hard to fulfill on those seamlessly,” Rotival added.   

Modernize legacy systems 
Executing against a long-term strategy to establish a digital foundation with offerings that are engaging because of their simplicity will almost inevitably encounter an obstacle, if not roadblock, in legacy IT infrastructure.  

“You may need to, over time, replace a legacy system with something more modern and able to stream information,” Winkenwerder said.  

When CEOs and IT executives begin considering their inventory of legacy systems, many will find that almost all of them, regardless of the technology or specific vendor, are at risk of becoming a liability in the next few years from a process and business model standpoint, not to mention cost, Rotival said.  

“Our digital strategy has also led us to go toward a very aggressive retail inspired data strategy, where we’re finding that we need to abstract our legacy infrastructure from our digital experience and create that omnichannel experience with an enriched data layer,” Rotival added.  

Upskill the workforce  
Long before the so-called Great Resignation or Great Reshuffling, health care entities faced widespread talent shortages, including in the realm of information technology professionals — and as CEOs look to accomplish the work of digitizing the consumer experience, organizations will need a workforce capable of committing to that journey, setting the digital foundation, building apps and tools people actually use and modernizing legacy systems to make it all happen.  

“One of our real issues is the lack of technology expertise in the health care workforce,” Ingari said. Drawing on his deep technology background dating back to Lotus 1-2-3, Ingari pointed out that in other industries technical know-how is commonly embedded into many employees. Not so in health care. “There’s a lack of sophistication. We have a real deficit there compared to many other industries, like retail.” 

That lack of sophistication also makes it more difficult for health care organizations to retain those people who do understand technology and many CEOs have been losing top talent to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other technology giants.  

“It’s amazing how hard it is to keep a team in businesses like ours,” Rotival said.  

Forward-looking health care CEOs and executive teams are at the front of digital transformation that will prove itself increasingly necessary as the commercial success of disruptive business models at scale become more common.  

“The more people experience the kind of consumer experience that we’re capable of delivering with digital support and enablement, the more it produces winners in the marketplace,” Winkenwerder said. “And if you’re not on that path to winning, you’re losing.”  

Indeed, the stakes for digital health have increased dramatically in the last two years. That means leaders must be proactive by first recognizing the problem, then committing to the multi-year journey that will benefit from simplicity while requiring modernization and upskilling.   

“We’re getting our act together on the first wave. That’s exciting and we have a challenging couple of years ahead,” Ingari said. Rotival added: “Everybody knows digital is possible now. Everybody’s done it in some fashion and they’ve had generally a good experience, if not an eye-opening experience compared to pre-COVID days. And now they’re all thinking, ‘wow, health care really could be like retail or travel or whatever it may be.’” 


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