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Dutch healthcare institutions need to think like tech sector

The healthcare industry needs to approach technological innovation in a different way if it is to maximise the benefits for staff and patients

Those working in the healthcare industry need to acquire the skills required to help them understand the opportunities the latest IT innovations can bring to the sector, according to a Dutch e-health innovation consultant.

Applied correctly, technological innovations in healthcare can really make a difference. For example, by automating specific processes, care institutions might be able to halve the number of administrative staff they need.

“The money saved could then be invested in innovation,” said Netherlands-based e-health innovation specialist Jethro Hardeman.

The biggest stumbling block, however, is that healthcare institutions have too little understanding of the technological possibilities.

“Many useful apps and technical gadgets are being developed in the market. They promise gold mountains, but they often turn out to be a disappointment for health institutions because the two parties – care and tech suppliers – do not speak the same language,” said Hardeman.

He said he often sees requests for solutions from health organisations which don’t really fit the bill. “For example, a healthcare worker might ask for an iPad because it will make a client calmer, but when we dig deeper into the underlying need, we almost never end up with an iPad as the solution,” said Hardeman.

That digging deeper and understanding what is actually required is still sometimes lacking in technology companies. But the problem-solving approach of design thinking is starting to change this.

“[Design thinking] is a method to gain a better understanding of what the patient or client needs. This is helpful, both for healthcare and technology companies, because together you focus on the needs of the client, the journey the client makes, and what he or she encounters. That creates a common picture so you no longer have two different expectations at the table and the same language is spoken,” said Hardeman.

Improve digital skills of healthcare workers

To this end, the digital skills on the care side need to be developed more firmly –  something which healthcare institutions have to deal with themselves, said Hardeman. Although some institutions already require their employees to work with certain applications, such as Microsoft Excel, it is important to think about how IT skills can be widened in an organisation.

“Healthcare is still very much focused on people. When we talk about a ‘knowledge base’, someone from the healthcare sector thinks of a person who knows a lot about a something and therefore knows who to ask for more information,” said Hardeman.

“Someone with an IT background thinks about Google when they hear the word ‘knowledge base’, not the people. IT people will wonder how to combine maximum information with as few resources as possible – a mindset that is desperately needed in the healthcare sector,” he added.

Such a radical change in thinking does not happen overnight, and a number of generations will pass over it. Nevertheless, a number of healthcare institutions are taking steps in this direction.

S Heeren Loo, a disability care organisation located in the Dutch city of Amersfoort, recently launched a “digital skills” campaign, developing a website for health professionals who want to develop their digital skills.

“80% of all trajectories are led by technology, but this should be reversed. It’s all about people and processes. That is where success is achieved, so that’s where most of the energy needs to go. Technology should only be a tool”
Jethro Hardman, e-health innovation consultant

This was much needed, because the organisation’s own research found that about 1,000 employees are “digital starters”, while only a few are digitally skilled but would like a bit more depth.

Start with innovation methods

Technological innovation offers enormous opportunities for care, but many institutions have no idea where to start. There are a number of methods that can help. 

Hardeman is especially keen on the Voort Innovation methodology developed by Gijs van Wulven, which combines elements from design thinking, lean startup and other methods. “One of the starting points in this method is the vision and strategy,” said Hardeman.

“It is very important that a broad group of people from all over the organisation are brought together to determine the [destination]. This will act like a kind of DNA during the entire innovation process,” he said.

This is important, added Hardeman, because successful small-scale innovation projects often face problems when scaled up. “You immediately notice that the system of the organisation, the culture, the resources, people and processes are not geared up to it and you run into resistance,” he said. 

Focus on user requirements

There are a number of pitfalls that you have to watch out for as a healthcare institution, Hardeman warned. For example, the management of expectations is sometimes forgotten.

“The technology supplier – in close cooperation with the management level in an organisation – might deliver a killer app, of which the person who has to use it might think, ‘What do I do with this? I wanted a simple app with which I could only report’,” he said.

Hardeman pointed out that it was frustrating that so little attention is paid to users in many large innovation or implementation projects.

“In my opinion, 80% of all trajectories are led by technology, but this should be reversed. It’s all about people and processes. That is where success is achieved, so that’s where most of the energy needs to go. Technology should only be a tool,” he said.

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