Generative artificial intelligence is a hot topic these days--the latest “shiny object.” The widespread availability of AI platforms like ChatGPT has led to a surge of interest, experimentation and concern. We are inundated with stories about how tech firms and teenagers have found novel uses for AI to improve our lives. Thousands of healthcare AI applications are available for drug discovery, clinical practice, supply chain, provider productivity, employee engagement and customer service, to name a few.
What does this mean for healthcare leaders? How can hospitals and health systems embrace AI while staying focused on their missions and surviving current financial, workforce and other challenges? There’s a saying that doctors will not be replaced by AI, they will be replaced by doctors using AI. The same is true for healthcare leaders: They won't be replaced by AI, but they may be replaced by leaders who can effectively use it--who aren't afraid of the new and are taking steps to create organizational cultures that prioritize learning. Healthcare is a human business; empathy and caring are paramount, but so is the ability to leverage technology. Leaders must operate within those realities.
I recently interviewed 50 health system CEOs and chief information officers as part of a project funded by the Minnesota-based Scottsdale Institute, a nonprofit focused on sharing knowledge, best practices and lessons learned by their member health systems undertaking digital transformation. These leaders consistently expressed an urgent need for new thinking and efforts to accelerate progress toward this transformation. Most described the changes underway as “organizational, not digital.” Those who were further along on this journey were intentionally shifting their cultures and practices from being “us-focused” (hospitals, physicians, current practices) toward becoming “customer-focused” (patients, employees, being digitally enabled). This shift requires new ways of operating and managing, but above all, new ways of thinking.
The skills, experiences and mindsets of health system leaders today may not be as valuable in the future environment. Executives I interviewed described how they were intentionally changing how they manage--becoming comfortable not knowing everything, being overtly curious about what others know and deferring quickly to expertise, whether it's the CIO, the bedside team or an AI tool.
This is where our recent, collective experience with AI comes in. We can learn from how the world has experienced ChatGPT over the past several months. Successful healthcare leaders must be willing to explore, experiment and seek guidance. They need to lean toward the new and different while maintaining focus on what matters most, even when it seems less glamorous.
The healthcare industry has an opportunity to use a powerful technology that has been around for decades, but is now more accessible than ever before. We see the ways AI can help with simple and complex problems. We also know that AI-powered solutions aren't always what they seem, requiring us to look beyond the hype. In healthcare, without research and appropriate oversight, the potential for AI to harm patients and populations is undeniable.
As we witness this global experiment, we catch a glimpse of what it might look like when deeply curious leaders are making the organizational decisions. They would see the importance of establishing and upholding clearly defined values and ethical frameworks to guide AI-related initiatives. In doing so, they may unleash vast and almost unlimited possibilities.
AI will never replace healthcare leaders. Highly effective leaders, however, will find new ways to appropriately leverage such advanced technologies to enhance the work of their teams and the lives of their patients.