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Health System Innovation 2020: What’s at stake for those we serve

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By John Kontor, MD, Practice Lead, Provider Technology Services, Optum Advisory Services

With the start of a new a year, it’s a good time to take stock of the health care IT industry, where we’ve been, and where we are headed.

In this young century, we have witnessed a flourishing of technology innovation and adoption. The first 10 years might be called The Decade of the EHR, when electronic health records rose from obscurity to ubiquity. The most recent 10 years might be The Decade of Consolidation and Emerging Interoperability, when we saw a winnowing of EHR platforms, and began to connect EHRs to each other, to digital care delivery functions, to medical devices and to new sources of data outside traditional health care.

I think the next 10 years will be remembered as The Decade of Universal Data — a continuous information explosion measured across three vectors: the amount of health data; widening access to that data as regulatory and market forces require true interoperability; and the meaningfulness of that data in terms of digitized care pathways, clinical support, personalized treatments, and population-based health. All will be powered by game-changing innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), genomics and the rise of personalized medicine.

While it is easy to imagine the benefits these advances offer in terms of clinical outcomes and cost reductions, we must bear in mind that not all innovations deliver on their promises. Even when they do, complexity and expense can create disparities among health systems and their patients. There is no guarantee of success. 

So, when it comes to innovation, our decisions matter. It requires commitment of sizable resources and willingness to bear risk. But for those we ultimately serve, there is a lot at stake in our collective innovation.

As we prioritize this year’s activities and make organizational decisions, let’s remember the exponential impact we can have on the overall system and the people it works for. Here are three areas of innovation where I expect the coming decade will deliver sustainable benefits to their organizations and their patients:

  1. Transactional processes — Much is written about the need for clinical improvements, but not enough about harnessing innovation to remove friction from a complex and hard-to-navigate health care system. Emerging technology is well-suited to solve these problems. For instance, there's now realistically a potential future where prior authorization is fully automated, and care coordination is transformed through AI and true interoperability.
  2. Equity — The second opportunity is consistency in delivering excellent care decisions to every patient, regardless of their geography, socioeconomic status, or whom their provider is. These obstacles require that investments in technology are always paired with trained clinical experts.
  3. Achieving real outcomes — Interoperable data, a foundation of AI-enabled analytics, and consistent processes are important, but outcomes matter most. It’s not difficult to imagine a near-term world where it is relatively easy to predict risks and identify best interventions for patients and populations. But effectively changing outcomes will remain a challenge. Consumer technology behemoths have shown how it is possible to influence personal behavior through technology. We are going to have to focus on translating those commercial applications of consumer-focused technology to health care — for patients and providers. We must innovate to communicate, interact and prioritize actions among providers, payers and patients to catalyze the changes that will drive the outcomes in cost, quality and equity we strive for. Technology can drive that vision over the next decade.

CIOs, CEOs and other health care executives will need to place bets carefully in the coming years. Focusing on the solutions and platform capabilities that will most reliably bear fruit for the long-term will be key. With today’s technology and the innovation on the near horizon, we can create a health system that works better for everyone.