Hoping for nothing short of transformative change, more healthcare executives are adding a new member to their teams: the chief digital officer. Whereas the chief information officer might focus on implementing and managing electronic health records, the chief digital officer may concentrate on moving everyone in the organization to a digital mindset to engage consumers.
Last week, Ascension CEO Anthony Tersigni announced his health system would be hiring a CDO later this year. Tersigni intends the CDO to streamline clinical practices, unify the billing system and make costs more transparent.
"The chief digital officer is really more business-focused," said David Chou, chief information and digital officer of Children's Mercy Kansas City. "The CIO is more about keeping the lights on and the CDO is about driving organizational change through technology."
The proliferation of CDOs lately "is a sign of the times," said Fernando Martinez, CDO of the Texas Hospital Association. "As the digital footprint continues to grow, it requires technology to support the business and people with real operational acumen."
How the CDO role takes shape depends on the organization. Some systems might have the CDO focus on digital strategy across the organization. At others, the CDO might focus on the consumer experience, targeting new technologies to engage patients. And in fact, healthcare has been tapping more consumer-focused companies for the post. Providence St. Joseph Health's chief digital officer, Aaron Martin, was previously at Amazon.
Most CDOs and CIOs do not exist in a hierarchical relationship. Instead, the roles tend to be separate. Chou said proximity can make things harder, especially if the CIO maintains primary budget authority. "If you bring on a CDO and you're not going to give them the same investment as the CIO, they're set up for failure," he said.
The role of the CDO isn't just complicated by how CDOs and CIOs interact—it's also complicated by the fact that it may be a temporary position. After digital transformation is complete, the CDO might leave to undertake an overhaul elsewhere, said Tony Leng, managing director of recruitment firm Diversified Search. That's because if they're successful, there's no longer the need to drive the digital narrative.
And Darren Dworkin, Cedars-Sinai's senior vice president of enterprise information services and chief information officer, warns a CDO might not be the best first move toward true transformation. "There needs to be goal-setting first and the role second. I'm not sure hiring a CDO is the first step."