Most of the healthcare bosses I deal with have smartphones. They read documents on tablets and hold meetings via Skype. Some even hot-desk occasionally and have the good grace to pretend they enjoy it. But how tech-literate are the leaders in our health systems? Considering that the largest single component of global healthcare transformation is 'technology', the answer to that question must surely be: "very", right?

Technology in healthcare doesn't have a good reputation. In the English system it's hard to find anyone who escaped unscathed from the famous National Programme for IT (NPfIT). The programme cost the NHS time and money that it could ill afford, but most importantly it created a sense that technology change was an unbeatable nemesis that might one day cost a good CEO their career. So why is it that the majority of our healthcare leaders are so poorly equipped to tackle technology based transformation? After all, there’s no shortage of expert support that can be bought in.

I suggest we look at the healthcare CEO talent pool; most of them probably still remember the first new message 'ping' they ever received in their Inbox, or the first time they nervously did a 'finger swipe' across the screen of their iPhone. Nostalgic stuff. My three-year-old daughter, on the other hand, instinctively knows to swipe her sticky finger across any pristine glass surface in the hope that Peppa Pig’s Party Games will spring into life. In fact, she would probably consider it absurd to have to press a button.  I'm not suggesting that the problem is about 'age' per se, but more that these leaders did not grow up with this technology and might therefore lack confidence in leading and delivering high-risk, consumer services built on an evolving technology infrastructure that they don't fully (or even partially) understand. Healthcare has traditionally never been technology driven. It has been about face to face contact between patient and physician. It has been about large workforces working all hours to deliver more care to more people from within the four walls of a hospital. And if we've learnt anything from the challenges of the last few years it has to be that this model is no longer sustainable and that the solution is in technology.

Kaiser Permanente recently published that, in the last year, their physicians treated more patients by email than in person. Email is hardly the 'latest thing', but nevertheless this marks a massive shift in our perception of what healthcare delivery means. That this is an example of innovation in action is unquestionable but some might also view it as the erosion of the 'personal touch' that we have come to cherish in our healthcare services, even though many of us would probably admit that this hasn't existed for a long time. That's a whole other blog right there, but the point is, leading a healthcare provider that treats more people remotely via emerging technologies each year requires a skill-set, mind-set and approach that many CEOs in the sector simply don't have. A senior physician I spoke to recently told me that he "came into medicine to interact with patients, not to sit in front of a computer all day". He then cut our meeting short to order Steve Jobs' autobiography from Amazon before 3pm to qualify for next day delivery. He just "never had time to get to a bookshop" apparently. But that's neither here nor there.

Part of the problem might also be that healthcare providers and technology companies have always been separate entities. Very simply, one purchases solutions from the other, so already there is a divide and an unhelpful relationship. This is very much the case in the UK and perhaps less so in some other countries, but it begs the question: who owns the innovation and the risk? It has to be the healthcare provider.  Whether we're talking about patient data sharing, teleconferencing with a physician or an individual self-managing their chronic illness via a smartphone, when something goes wrong, a patient's family won't want answers from a t-shirt wearing manager at Google, they will want a meeting with the hospital CEO. So there’s a strong argument to suggest that expertise in technology-based transformation needs to be a core requirement of our emerging healthcare leaders and clinicians. Fail to understand how the technology works, you fail to understand the risks you're taking with your patients’ lives.

Big data is here. Cloud computing is here. 4G is here. Healthcare technology isn't the future, it is the here and now so our leaders had better start playing catch up. 

Chris Hamilton

Chris is the Head of the Life Science Practice in the UK. He was previously a Partner in the Global Healthcare Practice where he led many of the most complex and challenging leadership searches acr...

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