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Can CEOs balance “high tech” with “high touch” in a post-pandemic world?

Keeping up with technology without losing touch with the human element of healthcare is a challenge for CEOs in a post-pandemic world scarred by burnout.
By admin
Apr 19, 2024, 1:01 PM

Good health is a matter of balance. Calories with exercise; work with personal time; activity with sleep. The optimal blend looks a little bit different for everyone, but there’s clearly a problem when any one of these elements is severely out of whack.

Unfortunately, too many healthcare organizations have been struggling with their own lack of balance for far too long. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that providers and administrative staff members were feeling seriously off-kilter – and the sudden body blow of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown them off even further.

Adding insult to injury, the technologies that were supposed to help achieve harmony throughout the healthcare ecosystem have actually made things worse in many areas, adding to the everyday burdens of delivering care with excessive clicks, frustrating workarounds, and avalanches of low-value alerts and messages.

With the industry now listing dangerous to one side as it attempts to recover from the pandemic years, the only way to get back on course will be finding a new way to align the very real benefits of technology with the essential elements of humanity that make high-quality care delivery happen.

It falls to executive leaders to identify what “balance” means for their unique organizations and execute on this vision for a harmonious relationship between people and technology.

But at the moment, this is easier said than done. The C-suite is running up against a number of obstacles – including their own thought processes – that are making it difficult to adopt the latest tools and strategies while keeping staff from burning out.

A new survey from the University of Colorado Denver’s Health Administration Research Consortium (HARC) reveals the full extent of how much CEOs are wrestling with these issues, but also hints at how to break through the barriers and rebalance the scales in their favor.

“Are we losing the touch in healthcare?” asked associate professor and HARC director Jiban Khuntia, PhD, one of the authors of the report. “What is that balance of high tech and high touch? Overwhelming stress, anxiety, burnout, and mental anguish are compelling healthcare’s heroes to search for better work-life balance. Too many feel isolated, disconnected, and disengaged.”

“Burnout does not have to be our new normal. The solution will take policy, institutional, and systematic change, but is eminently doable. It stars with workflow integration and intelligence to lessen time and psychological burdens.  Once we identify the causes of burnout and viable solutions, we can begin developing policies and programs to promote worker well-being, equality, and resilience.”

Keeping up with the Joneses is getting a lot harder for CEOs

In the survey of nearly 130 CEOs, 90% expressed concern about being able to keep up with the infrastructure and processes surrounding virtual transformation, and 95% feel that tackling the barriers to implementation will be one of the biggest challenges of the next year.

Making the shift to virtual care and embracing cutting-edge data analytics are top priorities for the C-suite, with 84% believing that telehealth and virtual care are going to be their biggest growth driver over the next 12 months.

But in characteristic corporate fashion, the CEOs believed that it was more important to champion the use of technologies, whatever they may be (86%), than actually think through a comprehensive, value-driven plan for implementing tools that drive measurable improvements (74%).

Only 66% said it was important to have a clear vision of how digital technologies can help produce a competitive advantage, which could be why it’s so hard for organizations to position themselves for success internally while gaining the patient loyalty and market share they need to stay afloat financially.

“It’s a paradox now,” Khuntia said. “The healthcare industry doesn’t have an articulated vision, but is being propelled by big data and machine learning. They want to give unprecedented healthcare access using technology and be efficient and affordable, but don’t know how to do that.”

These potentially misplaced priorities might be contributing to the industry’s inability to walk the fine line between “tech for tech’s sake” and technology that can augment and enhance the contributions of human caregivers.

Pulled in all directions by technology, staff are feeling the burn

The lack of focus on long-term, strategic thinking isn’t doing any favors for overworked, burned out staff, either.

Technology-related burnout has been making headlines for more than a decade, but the pandemic’s tumultuous online-only years have truly focused the issue like never before. Psychological stress and cognitive fatigue are at an all-time high for clinicians and administrative workers alike, with staff continually blaming convoluted, inefficient technologies as a major driver of their distress.

While the CEOs seemed to recognize that technology can be both helpful and harmful depending on how it’s deployed, they might not be hitting the mark with managing their human resources, either.

When asked about their top initiatives to reduce burnout among staff, 87% said they were most focused on increasing appreciation from others.

Recognition and support are indeed important for validating and encouraging the workforce, but leaders can’t just rely on the occasional pizza party to boost morale. Perfunctory appreciation efforts that are not aligned with staff priorities and needs can be viewed as insulting and demoralizing, rather than the opposite, so C-suite leaders need to ensure these activities are designed to meet an identified need among the workforce.

To their credit, 77% of CEOs said they are actively working to increase psychological safety at work, which similar numbers reported readjusted mismatches in workload and making it easier to report concerns.

However, fewer are looking into offering new benefits (73%), which may include higher compensation, and increasing opportunities for staff to show initiative (65%). Stagnant wages and stifled communication could contribute to feelings of being “stuck” in a career that doesn’t match long-term professional development goals.

Spending more time on these areas could be beneficial for retaining talented workers who are looking for opportunities to stretch their wings and actively contribute to the organization’s wellbeing – as well as their own. By incorporating more user opinions and ideas into technology implementation and workflow optimization, organizations could regain a sense of perspective on how these tools can help, instead of hinder, their overall missions.

Finding solutions in collaboration and diversity of thinking

The news isn’t all grim for healthcare organizations. Despite the tough environment and lingering legacy thinking, leaders are making an effort to explore new avenues for success, including innovative collaborations with partners and peers.

Just over three-quarters of respondents said that “diverse yet aligned” partnerships will be key to competing in the post-pandemic economy. These relationships are likely to include joining business networks (86%), horizontal integration with peer and competing health systems (77%), working with startups and entrepreneurs (76%), or bringing in consultants to help optimize processes (74%).

Leaders are also recognizing the importance of bringing in different perspectives internally, and are focusing on diversity and inclusion initiatives to build up their human talent.

Eighty-four percent are looking for a much broader range of skills than they have in the past, while about three-quarters are hiring out of other industries and working directly with universities to strengthen their talent pipeline. Almost all (95%) of the respondents said these efforts are strengthening their brand and reputation, while 84% say they are seeing increased business performance from this approach.

Over time, this influx of new thinking and unique perspectives may be the ticket for rebalancing the scales of technology vs. humanity. As fresh ideas and a little bit of positive peer pressure help CEOs reexamine what it takes to thrive in the after-COVID world, they may find themselves spending a little more time on taking a measured, forward thinking approach to planning their digital strategies.

Looking before they leap – and developing the capacity to fail fast and pivot quickly in response to concerns raised on all different levels of the organization – will be essential for making sure that healthcare can become both high tech and high touch: a fully humanized experience made more precise and effective by the latest digital tools and experiences.

Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry.  Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.  She can be reached at jennifer@inklesscreative.com.

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