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COVID-19 Outbreak: 5 Critical Areas a Healthcare CIO Should Focus On

During these uncertain times, Chief Information Officers (CIOs), especially healthcare CIOs, need to remain focused and on top of their game. Healthcare systems will be pushed to the brink over the next several weeks. The CIO must ensure that, from a technology perspective, their organizations, clinicians, employees, and patients have the tools necessary to provide and receive the care they need.

Critical Areas

Safe, Remote Access

Keeping people connected is one of the most pressing needs during a pandemic. While many people in healthcare cannot work at home because they are directly involved in patient care, others can. To that extent, those working at home need access to work remotely, which will rely on a stable IT infrastructure. CIOs must (if they haven’t already) incorporate strategies for enabling capabilities such as:

  1. Remote access to the network through a safe and secure process
  2. Instant messaging
  3. File sharing
  4. Meeting solutions
  5. Providing needed hardware such as laptops and phones in the event someone does not have the necessary equipment

Enabling Telehealth

Many organizations are in the developmental stages of widespread deployment of telehealth services.  Now more than ever, organizations need to get telehealth operational to allow clinicians and patients to connect. It’s also important that CIOs understand and collaborate with their legal and privacy experts regarding what regulations may ‘relax’ during this time, and using alternative methods if they don’t have a solution in place. For example Health and Human Services (HHS) just released the following:

Covered health care providers may use popular applications that allow for video chats, including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype, to provide telehealth without risk that OCR might seek to impose a penalty for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules related to the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. Providers are encouraged to notify patients that these third-party applications potentially introduce privacy risks, and providers should enable all available encryption and privacy modes when using such applications. 

This modification opens the door to other applications that previously would have not been allowed in normal circumstances to enable safe and efficient interactions between patients and their clinicians.

While the relaxation of this rule will go a long way in facilitating critical care during this time, what happens after? This rule change is temporary and once normal operations are re-established, will revert back to the standard regulations. CIO’s need to be prepared for this change. It’s likely that HHS will provide a grace period to reestablish normal operating procedures, but that implies the CIO has a plan in place now, or has at least thought about how to manage the return to standard. While we can’t predict the future or how long this will go on, at a minimum, the CIO should have an inventory of all systems, assets, and clinicians using non-standard telehealth options.

Understanding Staffing and Critical Need Areas

It’s possible that people who work in healthcare may be called upon to extend their responsibilities beyond their traditional roles. In addition, there are some functions that are critical and some that can be tabled for later. The CIO can work with other members of the leadership team to:

  1. Assess risk and address staffing gaps in mission-critical areas
  2. Prioritize support efforts for areas such as emergency medical response, payroll and billing, patient access, and supplies
  3. Identify what tasks can be automated to ease the burden, such as using AI to automate some tasks
  4. Supply resources from IT that can help other areas of the health system, like deploying analysts from IT to help out with billing or non-critical patient areas

Consistent, Reliable Communication

Crisis management requires that information is clear, accurate, and delivered at regular intervals. The CIO is pivotal in this role by providing a mechanism to centralize information from reliable sources, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and enabling leaders to deliver the same consistent message. In an age where people rely on social media for their news, a branded, central location housing accurate information is critical. Examples include:

  1. Regular emails to employees with updated organizational information letting them know changes in procedure and other critical information
  2. Posting updates on the website, along with verified links containing accurate and actionable information
  3. Communication to patients and families through email, patient portals, or other avenues
  4. Education reminders about only listening to information provided by reliable resources

Cybersecurity

Don’t let this slip during a crisis. It’s easy during stressful times to let things slide, but shoring up data security and data privacy is crucial to maintaining a tight security posture. Bad actors and others will use this to gain access to your systems and carry out cyber or phishing attacks, creating chaos. Clear, consistent focus on your security policies, procedures, and practice is imperative.  Steps you can take:

  1. Pull out your incident response plan so that you have a well-coordinated effort
  2. Ensure you have enough security staff to support your organization during this time, and hire extra staff if you don’t
  3. Ensure your patch management, virus control, endpoints, and internal and external monitoring are all current and operational

Conclusion

There is no doubt these are trying and difficult times, but there’s no better time for a CIO to leverage the full power of technology to help hospitals, clinicians, and patients. In the coming weeks, health systems will be stretched to beyond capacity. It’s the role of a CIO in healthcare, as an executive leader in the organization, to provide the tools necessary to ease the daily burden until this crisis passes.