Chris Belmont, vice president and chief information officer for Mississippi's Memorial Health System, says any new program should begin small and focus on the patient.
To Chris Belmont, innovation isn't just a strategy. It's a commitment to improving patient care.
"It's not something you have, but actually something you do," says the veteran healthcare executive who now serves as vice president and chief information officer for the Memorial Health System, a two-hospital network based in Gulfport, Mississippi.
And for innovation to really work, he says, it has to lead back to the patient.
"We're great at creating things, and technology, and processes … but are we really paying as much attention to the patient as we should?" he says.
Belmont has more than 35 years of experience in executive leadership, business development, and consulting, the last two of which have been spent at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. In the past he's served as vice president and CIO at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and system vice president and CIO for the Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, leading EMR transformation projects at both health systems while helping to revamp their Information Services departments.
At Memorial Health, his strategy for trying out new programs and technologies is to start small, with very specific outcomes, goals, and participants.
"Don't launch these big initiatives," he says. "If we had done that, we would have slowed things down and missed some opportunities."
Chris Belmont, vice president and chief information officer of the Memorial Health System in Gulfport, Mississippi. Photo courtesy Memorial Health System.
In some cases, that might mean starting in a clinical department, rather than IT, to give a program a chance to establish roots before marrying it to a specific technology. Once that base is established, data is gathered, and results are proven, he says. Then, a health system can scale a program out, adding more departments and serving more populations.
"We start with an idea, and we put a program together than can be part of our portfolio," Belmont says. "Once it's in our portfolio, we have the opportunity to put it onto a platform and ask, what can this platform do?"
By taking a tiered approach to innovation, he says, a health system can focus on patient interactions and care. A large project tends to overlook small details, but those details may be what the patient looks at or experiences. As a result, a big program might look good and meet the goals set forth by the health system, but it doesn't necessarily address what the patient wants.
"Don't let the bureaucracy get in the way," he says.
As an example, Memorial Hospital has been working with Emmi digital health technology developed by Wolters Kluwer for patient engagement efforts, with a goal of reducing avoidable ED visits and hospitalizations and improving follow-ups. The hospital had launched a handful of small, concentrated programs and wanted to combine them on one digital health platform.
"It was at a time when we were all distracted by COVID," Belmont says. "Our nurses were busy with screenings and vaccinations, and we wanted to help them. This wasn't a robocall project; we wanted comfortable interactive technology that could improve the experience."
Using interactive voice response calling and multimedia videos to reinforce discharge or care instructions, monitor adherence to care management plans, and remind patients about follow-up appointments, Memorial Health developed a rapport with patients, encouraging them to take a more active role in their care.
"A lot of times [patients] don’t remember what was said [in visits with their doctor]," Belmont says. "We created a more effective messaging platform that engaged with them. It was more comfortable for them than the traditional automated reminders. I was surprised at how quickly patients reacted to the new platform."
According to data supplied by Wolters Kluwer, the program reduced unnecessary ED visits by 26%, which, in turn, reduced ED costs by about $89,000 over 1,000 patient discharges. The 30-day readmission rate also dropped between 27% and 65%, depending on patient adherence to prescribed programs. In addition, patients were 50% more likely to attend follow-up care appointments with their provider within 21 days of discharge.
"This was so much more effective than anything we'd done before in getting patients to [follow their care plan]," Belmont says.
The key to establishing that relationship, he says, is in listening to and understanding what the patient wants, rather than creating some shiny new toy or program and asking the patient to accept it.
"We have to look at this from the patient's point of view," he says. "Just think what would happen if we did too much of this. Would the patient be overwhelmed if we communicate too much? How do we make sure that we're not contacting them [to the point that] they're turning away?"
Belmont calls this a conundrum that every health system will face as it adopts more technology and programs that create more connections with patients outside the health system. All these channels will be great for collaborating on care management and passing information back and forth, but when will it be too much? How do healthcare providers create a conversation with the patient that meets the demands and expectations of both parties?
"Feedback is vital," he says, "both direct and indirect." Aside from asking patients how they want to interact with their care teams, providers need to gather data on how often patients communicate, on what channels, and whether those communications make an impact.
"My metric is if they keep coming back for more," Belmont says. "My role in this is the platform manager. I'm here to connect all the points, to make sure they're secure, and especially to make sure that they are reliable, and that the data we're getting is making a difference."
As Belmont looks to broaden those platforms with new programs and technology, he's focused on creating services that continue, rather than one-time interactions. He wants patients to look at this platform as an ongoing relationship with their care team, as well as a library of resources that they can access whenever they need help.
"We as a health system have to make sure we're taking advantage of all the tools in the toolbox," he says.
“We're great at creating things, and technology, and processes … but are we really paying as much attention to the patient as we should?”
— Chris Belmont, vice president and chief information officer, Memorial Health System
Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.
Chris Belmont has been in healthcare for more than 30 years, serving as a CIO at Ochsner Health and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center before taking over the role at Memorial Health two years ago.
Belmont says new programs should begin within the clinical space, with distinct goals, participants, and outcomes, before scaling up onto a platform.
Large-scale programs often focus on corporate goals, he says, and end up failing to take into account what the patient wants and needs.