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Sanford Health's CIO talks virtual care, workforce challenges, modern data ecosystem

Photo: Brad Reimer

It is an understatement to say Brad Reimer, CIO at Sanford Health, has his hands full.

Sanford Health is a massive health system that serves the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Today, Reimer is in the middle of a $350 million virtual care initiative, working to overcome health IT workforce challenges, and building a modern data ecosystem – emphasis on modern.

Healthcare IT News interviewed Reimer to discuss in detail these issues and programs, and additionally get some tips from him on one of his focus areas, information security preparedness.

Q. Please discuss Sanford’s $350 million virtual care initiative and how it is helping the organization.

A. Sanford Health recently launched a $350 million virtual care initiative to transform healthcare for rural and underserved communities across the Midwest by significantly improving access to convenient, high-quality healthcare.

As the largest rural health system in the United States, we are reimagining how we deliver care. People living in rural America face unique challenges, and access to care is one of the most significant determinants of health.

We are committed to removing barriers to access and addressing health disparities by extending our care and services – ensuring patients benefit from world-class care no matter where they live or the challenges they face.

As part of our virtual care initiative, Sanford Health will focus on expanding access, improving the patient experience, advancing innovation through new research, attracting and training a new generation of clinicians, and sharing learning opportunities through an education institute.

Earlier this year, our health system broke ground on a 60,000 square-foot Virtual Care Center, which will feature dedicated clinician workspaces equipped with the latest telemedicine technology to offer on-demand urgent care, behavioral health care and primary care.

We also plan to build five satellite clinics to ensure patients have access to care and services close to home. These satellite clinics will be located in towns with a population of 2,500 or less across Sanford Health’s footprint and will allow our patients access to primary care and urgent care services as well as lab, X-ray and pharmacy services.

The satellite clinics will be staffed by a nurse or nurse practitioner and will enable patients to immediately connect to a clinician or specialist located in our Virtual Care Center if needed.

In partnership with our satellite clinics, we will bring a team of more than 100 diverse clinicians together with innovative tools and technology to diagnose, monitor and provide care to our patients and senior care residents around the clock every day.

We expect to transition more than 350,000 outpatient visits a year to care from home, reach more than 11 million lives, and extend care to more than 275 clinics across the Midwest.

Q. On a different front, what are some of the health IT workforce challenges you are facing today, and how are you overcoming them?

A. The battle for talent in healthcare today is broader than the shortage of physicians and nurses. Health IT teams are facing many of the same workforce challenges as others across the healthcare industry, including a shortage of talent in cybersecurity, digital, cloud and data.

The demand for these roles is increasing at a pace faster than the rate of new college graduates entering the workforce. We’re also competing for talent with every other company that has a technology need – it’s not just Google and Amazon.

Sanford Health is well positioned to navigate these challenges through innovative strategies. For example, we know that many people are looking for a job that brings meaning and purpose, and there’s no better place to make a difference every day than in healthcare.

We have been intentional about making sure our technology team understands how their role connects to our organization’s mission of delivering world-class healthcare.

For example, we have created a reverse rounding program where we invite caregivers and other leaders across our organization to share their “day in the life of” stories with our entire technology team. These “clinical immersion sessions” allow nurses, physicians and other caregivers to discuss how technology intersects in their roles and impacts patients.

We have received very positive feedback from our team that the sessions have not only been empowering but have provided deeper meaning and purpose to their roles. This has been a differentiator for Sanford Health that has strengthened our recruitment and retention efforts.

Our people are our most important asset, so we are also deliberate in making sure our team receives recognition for all of the little things, not just the big projects.

As we look to the future, our technology workforce needs will continue to expand, particularly as we invest in new ways of delivering care, including remote patient monitoring, virtual care options and other digital tools. We remain committed to creating a more seamless digital experience to meet our patients’ needs and expectations and improve the health of our communities.

Q. You are big on information security preparedness. Please share some tips with your fellow CIOs and their CISOs.

A. Investing in cybersecurity preparedness is essential to protecting our people, patients and communities. The investment is also much broader than just having the right technical tools, software and talent. It requires close collaboration with and support from operational leaders.

This includes updating downtime procedures, providing ongoing education and consistently keeping best practices front-of-mind for employees. We’ve found it can be very effective to talk about cybersecurity preparedness in the context of our employees’ personal lives. It helps build good security habits that carry over into the workplace.

Sanford Health is also focused on building a new pipeline of high-paying and rewarding, meaningful careers in healthcare cybersecurity. In 2020, our organization formed a strategic Cyber Health Alliance with Dakota State University (DSU), a national leader in cyber education and research, which will allow us to address information security needs and expand the cyber workforce.

DSU educates some of the most in-demand students for national security agencies and large tech companies around the world. Sanford Health’s robust investments in healthcare technology, research and innovation offer an ideal platform for the partnership.

Initially, our alliance will focus on Sanford Health’s and DSU’s well-matched present needs and interests including talent acquisition, development and retention. For example, we will provide student enrichment opportunities and cyber executive education to enhance the pipeline and attract world-class talent.

DSU students will have the unique opportunity to be part of a hands-on, real-world process, working side by side with faculty, researchers and Sanford Health’s IT professionals, wrestling with problems and developing solutions.

Q. You have been focused on building a modern data ecosystem. Please describe the ecosystem and what you mean by modern.

A. There’s a lot evolving in healthcare right now – from AI to the Internet of Medical Things, to virtual care and consumer-centric digital health tools.

The most significant opportunity and common currency across all of those is data. Data is the lifeblood of the future of digital health and providing a modern and adaptable data ecosystem is incredibly important. This includes data governance, data accessibility, interoperability, AI and machine learning.

There are many factors that are leading healthcare systems to recognize the need for an updated and modern data ecosystem. For the past two decades, there has been a significant focus on the electronic health record, which has been the common center of gravity for data. With the proliferation of digital health solutions, there is more and more data being created outside the health record and not all of it belongs back in the health record.

So where should it go? When you consider the breadth and volume of new data coming from digital tools, mobile apps, remote patient monitoring systems, social determinants of health screenings, patient wearable devices, healthcare consumer behavior data, etc., the traditional capabilities of the healthcare data ecosystem need to expand to keep up.

All of these systems need to work in concert with each other to gain the benefits of improving the quality of care and enhancing the patient and provider experience. It’s both a huge need as well as opportunity for organizations to create partnerships with health systems, universities and third-party vendors.

Whether it’s leveraging this data to improve patient care plans, aid diagnosis, conduct research or provide a more personalized experience for patients, building a modern data ecosystem and providing access to this data to researchers, data scientists, artificial intelligence and advanced predictive analytic models will be a game-changer that will revolutionize healthcare for our patients and communities.

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