The Future of Hospitals: A Return to Service in a Digital World
A return to service in a digital world
Hospitals are a beacon of our mortality. They strive to bring relief to our pain and turn our terrible days into safe and satisfying experiences.
But often, reality falls short of this mission. Hospitals pressured to “digitally transform” have been rapidly digitizing their places, processes, and people – all with good intent – but doing so in ways that complicate, rather than ease, the patient experience. This race to digitize has shifted the burden of care toward patients, but has not provided them with the right tools to self-manage. It has created a barrier to adherence, due to the endless array of disjointed digital touchpoints, and it has erased many of the nuances in services that are necessary to treat a socioeconomically varied population.
These pitfalls are not inevitable. In the coming years, digital transformation will be vital for hospitals looking to increase efficiencies in order to better serve their patients. But in order to do this effectively, hospitals need to intentionally build a service-driven ecosystem that puts patients first.
How to put patients first
To truly work in the service of humanity, hospitals embarking on a digital transformation journey need to think not just of the relationship with the patient, but more fundamentally with the human. As human beings, we need just three things from hospitals as they serve us:
- We need to feel seen (my lived experience is understood)
- We need to feel secure (my person, data, and digital identity is protected)
- We need to feel special (my needs are treated as an individual)
Hospitals and their digital partners must take into account the context in which patients interact with a hospital over their lifetime. A lifetime of care means more than heroism in acute moments of strife. It means consistent, continual service in the patients’ daily experience. This is no less heroic.
Take, for example, the condition of Type 1 diabetes. From the point of diagnosis, a person living with this autoimmune disease will spend less than one percent of their time with a medical professional.
If they are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed in the hospital, it is a traumatic, life-changing event. They must become an instant expert in glucose monitoring and insulin administration, and they must self-advocate for their needs with insurance companies and pharmacies whose systems don’t talk to the hospitals’ systems. This lack of interoperability is more than inconvenient; it is dangerous. When patients are expected to troubleshoot these systems on their own, they are alienated by the very systems that are created to serve them. When patients are expected to educate themselves, we add an emotional burden to their physical one.
Imagine a hospital system that recognizes this, and seamlessly captures information and data, and uses it consistently to empower patients to make the right choices for their condition in their context. Imagine a system that proactively communicates with other key actors, preparing, delivering, and paying for the proper dosages needed before the patient needs to call the pharmacy. A system like this creates trust.
If a hospital demonstrates exceptional care and service after patients leave the hospital– by listening, monitoring, measuring, evaluating, and recommending – this will shift their perception from a beacon of our mortality into one of care and hope. It will expand their relationship with the communities they serve, and patients will more easily look at their care team as partners.
Digital technology enables this vision. But at the end of the day, digital technologies are just that — technology. They are what we use them for. A hospital striving to serve humanity needs to intentionally build a service-driven ecosystem, supported by digital.
Creating a service-driven ecosystem
Digital transformation is not about everything having digital at its core. It is not a matter of simply automating the current processes; it’s about finding the purpose for each service and harnessing digital technology to serve that purpose.
The services that a hospital delivers may be purely physical, like a conversation with a patient advocate, or they may be digital-first, like interoperable electronic health records stored in the cloud. But as hospitals move into the digital world, most will be hybrid digital/physical services, where humans make decisions with the augmentation of technology, such as robot-assisted surgery or AI-based diagnostics used to detect cancer. These services must be understood as islands in an archipelago, not islands on their own; they exist in the context of a larger ecosystem.
Having user input, both on the patient and the clinician side is critical to understanding how these services should interact in the larger ecosystem to serve the patient. In a robust, service-driven ecosystem there will be partner channels and independent channels that are used by your patients and out of your control. Often organizations put immense pressure on themselves to be the driving force for everything, but the best systems are those that integrate seamlessly with the ones patients are already comfortable with. There is immense power in an ecosystem that has qualities of amoeba, where channels fluidly move to center based on needs, allowing people to easily transition between them.
Digital can help patients feel seen, special and secure. It can provide tools that monitor and interpret, reassurance that identity data is protected, and personalized treatments that acknowledge unique needs and contexts. But these outcomes are not a given; they are the result of intentional decisions, intentional strategies, and intentional effort to use digital tools to deliver care, through a service-driven ecosystem in service of humanity.
Illustration by Mike Andersen