Industry Voices—Digital transformation in healthcare is lagging. There's one reason no one is talking about

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Many physicians agree that digital tools and solutions are worthwhile in theory, but with a heavy workload, they don’t have space in their schedules to evaluate these solutions. (GettyImages/ismagilov)

At first glance, the healthcare field seems to be a gold mine for digital innovation. An overextended workforce, outdated protocols, hundreds of wasted hours in administrative tasks, a patient population that is wide open to digital solutions, a multitude of inefficiencies and redundancies—the opportunities for a digital overhaul in healthcare are myriad.

Yet every year, the graveyard of digital health tools gets more crowded as innovators fail to overcome healthcare’s uniquely complex barriers to their adoption.

Gold mine and graveyard, the tremendous opportunities for digital transformation in healthcare and the seemingly insurmountable barriers to its adoption are two sides of a coin. They spring from the same root causes: the lack of financial incentives to implement digital solutions; the high stakes that necessitate a cautious approach; and, most significantly, providers’ seeming unwillingness to abandon proven workflows or sunk costs to take a chance on a disruptive solution.

This last cause is often the greatest barrier to getting innovation through the door. Clinicians are the primary end users of digital health, and a clinical champion can make all the difference in whether a solution is adopted.

But in the face of the physician shortage in the U.S., doctors don’t have time to trade out their proven workflows to take a risk on a solution that may or may not be successful and will almost certainly take time to learn and implement into their practice. The majority of providers are already at capacity—80% have no time to see more patients or take on more duties. What seems like an unwillingness to change is often an inability to find the time to change.

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Many physicians agree that digital tools and solutions are worthwhile in theory, but with an average workload of 40-60 hours a week, they don’t have space in their schedules to evaluate these solutions.

Because of their packed schedules, physicians often default to the status quo for sanity’s sake: 40% of physicians see up to 20 patients per day, with another 40% seeing more; and all spend almost a quarter of their day on administrative duties like inputting data into electronic medical records. If physicians do have a chance to sit down with innovators, it’s in the margins of their day.

It’s no surprise that in a 2018 survey conducted by the Physicians Foundation, 89% of physicians polled felt that they had somewhat to very little influence on changes in healthcare.

Yet only a physician has the kind of intimate knowledge of his or her needs and workflow that can drive effective innovations. Perhaps digital innovations have failed to take hold because the people making decisions around tools to help doctors are not doctors.

A new model to accelerate innovation

If we are going to break the barriers to digital transformation in healthcare, we need to expect physicians to think critically about how their job needs to evolve. And no one can do this without time to reflect on and evaluate the status quo.

In the corporate world, executives and other employees are encouraged to do research, to take time in their schedules for professional development. Many tech giants—most famously Google, but also Facebook, Linkedin, Apple and others—employ the 20% time model, where roughly one-fifth of an employee’s schedule is focused on personal side projects. (Those side projects have turned into Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Slack and Groupon, to name a few.) This is the model that we need to embrace in the healthcare system.

We need to look past the excuse that “doctors are traditionally conservative” and that is why innovation is dead in the water. While that narrative may have explained why cutting-edge technology is not more readily adopted by physicians, there are other problems that it doesn’t account for—like why rates of compliance for new protocols and best practices are abysmally low.

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Those symptoms should point us to a different solution, a solution we can do something about. Not “doctors need to get with the times,” but doctors need to get some time. 

One solution is to advocate for a higher price per consultation that can eliminate the existential need to pack daily schedules with patient appointments. Under the current model, doctors are incentivized to take as many appointments as possible, double—even triple—booking slots to squeeze as much productivity out of current rates of reimbursement.

But with increased reimbursement per consultation, physicians can more easily cover the cost of their salaries for their employers, which can then allow providers to take more time out of the clinic and in the office thinking critically about their roles and how to improve their delivery of care.

Of course, this begs the question—who pays?

The ones who stand to benefit most, of course. Giving physicians more time to develop professionally and research solutions is in the best interest of those who take on the burden of health costs, health insurance providers and the government (i.e., taxpayers).

Patient outcomes are almost guaranteed to improve when physicians have the time to stay up to date on best practices, and this directly reduces the burden of cost on those stakeholders.

Physician salaries represent a very small part of healthcare costs, paling in comparison to drugs and diagnostic care. If more money were paid to the physician on the front end to develop and implement more preventative solutions—by payers or government subsidies—the cost savings would increase exponentially, making an increase in physician salary an astute business move as well as one that can have a dramatic impact on patients’ lives.

Juan Pablo founded Babyscripts in 2014 with the vision that internet-enabled medical devices would transform the delivery of pregnancy care.