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HIStalk Interviews Andrew Smith, President, Impact Advisors

April 7, 2021 Interviews No Comments

Andrew “Andy” Smith is president and co-founder of Impact Advisors of Naperville, IL.


Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been in the healthcare IT field for 30 years. I started Impact Advisors with my brother 14 years ago.

How are CIOs spending their time and energy as the pandemic seems to be winding down?

This is not a unique thought, of course, but what an interesting year it has been. Needs evolved over the course of the year. At the beginning of the pandemic, basically all work stopped and CIOs were redirected into pandemic response, supporting their caregivers. There was a brief respite in the August timeframe, where everybody thought that the wave was over and they could get focused back on business as usual. The second wave hit, everything shut back down, and now over the last two months or so, it appears that the world is starting to open up a little bit. CIOs are focusing back on their agenda.

What’s interesting, though, is that when I talk to our CIO clients, they all remark similarly that the one thing they appreciated about the pandemic was that the pace changed and the expectations changed. Things that they thought were going to take three years took three months or three weeks. The common thought they have now is, how do we keep that kind of execution and pace going? Because now they are all a year behind on much of their agenda. I’ve seen a real uptick, in terms of interest, pace, and the agenda they are hoping to accomplish over the next year.

Did work of the CIO and IT departments gain internal respect as they were freed of the shackles of multi-year, multi-stakeholder projects and just told to quickly bring up technologies such as telehealth and chatbots under crisis conditions?

Yes, exactly. The consensus-building, governance, and bureaucracy that held back a lot of these technology advancements went by the wayside, and it became streamlined. They needed to stand up a telemedicine program overnight, and for most of our clients, their telemedicine programs increased by a hundredfold. That didn’t require an executive steering committee and three sub-levels of subcommittees to get there, which is typically how we make those decisions, for all the right reasons.

Much of the technology work is really just the point of the spear of huge change management efforts, and big change management takes consensus, time, and evolution. We didn’t have that liberty or that luxury, so we had to move quickly. The real question is, how do we balance those two ends of the continuum with this need for speed with a need for cultural change and adoption? That is going to be the interesting thing to watch.

Will they pick up existing budgets and priorities given that the pandemic overlapped fiscal years and the associated budgeting process?

That’s a really great question. I’m not sure I know that the answer to it, because we are figuring this out. Capital and operating budgets have been upended and redirected.

Again, I hope that we can move at a different pace. Many of our clients have had to lock themselves down. I’ve heard our clients say, “When it’s budget time, I can’t afford to miss a meeting. Otherwise, it could cost me millions of dollars of budget.” You hope we get into a new rapid cycle of opportunity identification, benefits analysis, and then move into execution very quickly.

I fear that we may fall back to the bureaucratic ways of old and the staid pace. But I hope that one of the outcomes of this pandemic is that we get comfortable moving quicker and reacting quicker and understand that the industry is moving at a different pace, and that we need to react to it with supporting technologies and change management.

How will the demand for consulting services change over the next couple of years?

We feel blessed in that respect, because we have a broad set of service offerings, and that starts with our advisory and strategy. We are working with our clients to solve a lot of these problems, where many companies have to react to the market and the client demand. It feels like we are trying to help figure this out alongside our clients, which is nice because that means we can develop our service lines, methodology, and tools in lockstep and even in advance of where we see the demand in the industry. We have evolved the company quite a bit over the last year in reaction to this, and we’ll continue to do that.

Are consumer-facing technologies getting executive and budgetary attention?

Yes. Digital health is one of our most active service lines right now, as you would fully suspect, and that would include telemedicine. This is going to become a competitive advantage or disadvantage, and our clients are all worried about it. When the pandemic hit and they had to rapidly stand up telemedicine programs, they did that with bubblegum and duct tape and tried to figure out how to make that work. They were using FaceTime, Zoom, and all sorts of different technologies to cobble together a solution. They have all been circling back to say, “OK, how do I create a standardized foundation for this?”

The technology isn’t that interesting, quite honestly, but it’s all of the foundational elements, the process elements, and the care delivery elements that are so different. The challenge our clients are going to have is that if you try to layer digital health on your existing inpatient ambulatory infrastructure, that’s not going to be a real recipe for success. You need to think about this in a disruptive way of how to connect with the consumer in the community and how to interact with them in a way that’s convenient for them. You almost have to build a separate infrastructure. You need to think about this with an entrepreneurial mindset. But all our clients are worried about it.

Who drives that process in health systems?

A really interesting question, and I know you have some perspectives on this because I’ve seen you interview others around the concept of a chief digital officer or a chief patient experience officer. It is not a singular person, most commonly. It’s not typically the CIO, although the CIO is a major component and evangelist for some of these technologies. It could be the chief marketing officer, or one of those newer types of “chief” titles like chief experience officer, chief digital officer, or chief transformation officer. The real concern about that is that if you bifurcate that from the CIO and the technology, you’ve got an opportunity to layer complexity or miss an opportunity to streamline these things, to make it easier for the consumer and the caregivers.

Will people from outside healthcare be brought in since other industries are ahead of ours with consumerism?

Yes. We have seen that as a growing trend. The concern about that is that we have seen many waves of people from outside of healthcare coming in to rescue us. They don’t have a keen awareness or understanding of the complexities.

It’s a very odd industry we serve, where the consumer may be disintermediated from the bill they are paying or the cost of the services they are consuming. Although this is changing, in a lot of respects, the caregiver isn’t always completely controlled by the delivery system. It’s just a very strange industry that we serve. It doesn’t follow regular economic laws. I get concerned that people come in and think they can solve healthcare with a lot of outside industry experience.

But contrary to that is that we have been subject to a lot of groupthink inside healthcare, with fixed mindsets and the idea that we can’t do things differently because of the way it was in the past. Instead of standing up digital health, we’ll build a new building. That’s very dangerous thinking, too. The answer is somewhere in the middle. You need to infuse a lot of new thinking and also understand the restrictions or the models that work inside healthcare.

When you said “build a new building,” my first thought was that a progressive health system would sell an existing building and use the money move services to where consumers are. Along those lines, considering the rise of digital health and virtual hospitals, who will set the direction that defines exactly what a health system looks like?

The healthcare system of the future will continue the evolution we’re on, which is that health systems are looking to manage the breadth that they provide, give a closed ecosystem, so that they can care for their communities. They’re going to look to contract in broader ways for the health of the population. Now we’ve been saying that for decades, but we’re going to be right one of these days. That makes too much sense that we’re going to get into these Kaiser or Mayo-like health systems that are going to be resplendent across the entire nation. That just makes too much sense for it not to be true. There’s always going to be a need for a physical footprint for high-acuity people. But more and more of the care is going to move outpatient, more and more of the care is going to move to the home, and more and more of the care is going to move to a virtual environment.

What I fear is going to happen is that the haves and the have-nots are going to continue to become more disparate. That’s going to be a real problem, in terms of health equity, rural care, and the underserved. That’s trend that we need to be careful about, because the haves are willing to invest and gain some efficiencies, and the have-nots aren’t getting reimbursed at the level they need to continue to invest and evolve.

While we were all setting up vaccination sites and figuring out telehealth, federal rules took effect that covered price transparency, information blocking, and ADT notification. Are hospitals ready to address those?

They are aware of it. We did quite a number of advisory projects last year just to make sure that our clients are prepared for it, so I know it’s on their radar screen. I know they are reacting to it. My suspicion is they’ll be able to thread the needle, but your broader point is absolutely accurate. A lot of things have been changing.

There’s been a lot of scrutiny on information sharing and that trend is going to absolutely continue. We need to continue to move to pure interoperability and data sharing for the benefit of the consumer.That’s going to require a lot of change from the vendor landscape and from the health systems. I’ve talked to a lot of health systems and we, as an industry, still view that relationship between the health system and the patient as parochial. We view our knowledge of that patient, that consumer, as a differentiator. That thinking is probably going to have to break down over time and we will have to differentiate in other components, such as efficiency, cost, safety, and quality.

What level of interest are you seeing in robotic process automation?

There is this new uptake of RPA, which looks a lot to me like the screen scraping technologies that we used to talk about 10 years or so ago, Those certainly have their place and can be effective, but they are somewhat brittle technologies. If any of the underlying systems change, it’s a labor intensive process to identify and mirror your systems to it. The next evolution of RPA needs to be more dependent on AI and machine learning to fulfill the promise of robotic process automation, not just serve as a veneer on top of a screen scraping technology with its benefits and limitations.

Do you have any final thoughts?

In the last year, we’ve been through a black swan event. There was this period of rapid change, much of it negative. But we need to work hard to preserve the positive elements of it — the speed of change, the adoption of consumerism, and digital health. It’s an exciting time to be in our industry. We are starting to fulfill the promise of these big, monolithic EMRs. We have installed these and now can start to turn this data into information. 

I’m excited about what the next 10 years are going to bring. We have an opportunity to pivot the healthcare delivery system, and I’m excited that we will be along for the journey.

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