Transformers in chief - navigating digital redesign

The elite corps of chief digital officers emerging today are both business-minded and tech-savvy and use those skills to rethink operations.
By Nathan Eddy
04:46 AM

As healthcare moves to value-based, consumer-centric models, and the industry is disrupted by tech-savvy vanguards, a small but intrepid group of hospital systems are introducing the chief digital officer (CDO) role to manage transformation.

“To really transform requires a complete 360 degree operational redesign,” said David Chou, the former CDO of Children’s Mercy Kansas City who is currently VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research. “Only a few CEOs get that and are willing to make the radical change.”

Indeed, CDOs are something of an elite group today. Pamela Dixon, managing partner of SSi-Search, a recruiting firm that specialises in C-level roles, said she is seeing more of them crop up and pointed to Ascension’s hiring of Eduardo Conrado last year as a reasonably high-profile hire. 

Another health system, Novant Health, made something of a splash when it named former Rent-A-Center and BDP International CIO Angela Yochem as its CDO as well.

We interviewed prominent CDOs Dr Fernando Martinez of the Texas Hospital Association and Aaron Martin of Providence St. Joseph Health about the emerging role.


CDOs influence ranges from reducing risk in data-oriented projects to ensuring regulatory compliance and capitalising on big data opportunities to monetise information assets. Dixon described the CDO as both a strategic business-minded leader and tech-savvy enough to rethink operations for the digital era. 

“We’re concerned with how technology and digital capabilities reconcile to the mission of the business – taking care of patients,” said Martinez. “It’s somewhat of a precarious balancing act, providing that information flow is one of the big challenges for a hospital-based CDO.”

Martinez said seamless movement of data along the continuum of care – on a timely basis in order to provide the best care – is a critical aspect of digital strategy, and in healthcare it’s complicated by security concerns. He explained data lives in a hierarchy. At the bottom you have data, followed by information, followed by knowledge, and by wisdom.

“A fact about a patient isn’t helpful, but a bunch of details gives us knowledge. We want to turn it into actionable information,” he said.


He noted there’s a level of urgency in healthcare that does not exist to the same degree and it is critical to have access to a patient’s EHR. “How we take these large bodies of data and turn them to wisdom is a challenge that requires a discrete level of strategic thinking about data,” he said.

Since Aaron Martin joined Providence St. Joseph Health as CDO in 2014, he has led a team of more than 200 software engineers and programmers tasked with better engaging patients, families, and communities. 

“My job is to not only work on digital transformation, but more specifically to move our relationship with customers and patients from an offline status to an online status,” Martin said. “We have a huge engagement problem, and so we don’t really see patients but two and a half times a year.”

The challenge, then, is how to get a continuous conversation about health going on, and part of that can be met by developing apps that keep people engaged about their health, with features like one click scheduling and telehealth visits. 

“We take areas like better engaging the Medicaid population, break them down further, take it through a process to see if the digitalisation approach moves the needle,” Martin said. “If Epic can solve the problem we use Epic – if it won’t we go out into the market and look for the best of breed, or we build the platform ourselves.”


Martin said health systems also have to get their brand right, and what that means from the digital standpoint is needing to build a very substantial base of content online so that people trust the health system’s credibility. 

“Another thing you have to get right is being transaction ready,” he said. “Take for example the ability to plan scheduling with your physicians. It sounds easy, hard to do, and it has a lot to do with things like getting their schedules online.”

When it comes to maintaining engagement with the population, he pointed to a platform that provided curated content for women who were pregnant, which eventually grew to encompass health issues spanning a woman’s whole lifespan. Martin said other health systems like Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic do an “incredible job” with onlining patients through a variety of digital engagement initiatives.

In the not too distant future there are going to be huge changes on the Web in how healthcare is discovered, much of that dependent on being able to process these transactions online. 

“I don’t think there is going to be a typical five-year journey we have the luxury to complete, I think it’s closer to about 18 months,” Martin said. “There are a lot of technology partners out there willing to come in to help – but only if we’re ready.”

That’s ready, as in prepared to harness the power of data and analytics to become a major competitive advantage for health systems that can unlock that value.

Healthcare IT News Editor-in-Chief Tom Sullivan contributed to this report, first published in the newest issue of the HIMSS Insights eBook, which looks at the digital transformation of healthcare across the globe, and can be accessed here. Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

Digital Transformation in Healthcare

In May, we'll talk to experts and professionals on the front lines about what's really happening today with the digital transformation in healthcare and what hospital executives need to be doing right now.