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For the CIO, Digital Health Transformation Begins With a Data Strategy

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   September 01, 2023

Northwell Health SVP and CIO Sophy Lu says health systems have to embrace consumerism—and the technology needed to support it—to establish personalized care experiences.

A health system's digital strategy won't work unless it's aligned with current trends and technologies, much like a car won't function at its best if its wheels aren't in alignment. And it's up to healthcare leadership to guide that transformation.

According to the HIMSS 2022 Future of Healthcare Report, roughly 90% of health systems surveyed expect to have a digital strategy in place within five years, and more than 60% say they're in the middle of that journey. But that strategy has to be planned carefully, focusing on how information is gathered from various locations, analyzed, and used to improve care pathways. Digital strategies won’t work unless there's a clear direction from leadership on value and ROI.

"We're in the business of delivering care," says Sophy Lu, senior vice president and chief information officer at New York's Northwell Health. And for that process to work best, she says, "We need to be in perfect synergy … with the patient experience."

And that begins with data.

"Data is the fuel for innovation," Lu said during a presentation at this year's ViVE conference in Nashville. This includes data from the health system's various platforms, like the EHR, as well as information from outside the network, culled from and about patients as well as payers. That data helps to create a plan to address a patient's healthcare needs and preferences and to work with payers to facilitate the patient's healthcare journey.

With so much data coming from outside the enterprise, health systems must invest in the technology to integrate and analyze that often-unstructured information. Lu says it's important for health system leaders to set the tone for that strategy by supporting digital health platforms that use data to improve the patient journey.

"Whatever we can do to enable that ease of experience will help us," she says.

[Listen to this Podcast: A HIMSS 2023 Chat With Northwell Health CIO Sophy Lu.]

It's a strategy that has been around long before the pandemic, Lu says, yet COVID-19 exposed just how slow the healthcare industry has been in effecting change. In many cases, she says, health systems are using legacy technology and antiquated processes for collecting, analyzing, and using data. Either they haven't committed the resources to upgrading that technology or they don’t feel they have the money to make those improvements.

"It takes a lot of energy technologically to integrate and validate" consumer-focused care with old tools and platforms, she says. "You have to invest in that change."

Many health systems are pulling in digital health partners to help execute that strategy. Northwell Health is working with b.well Connected Health, based in Baltimore. Company Founder and CEO Kristen Valdes says healthcare organizations often lack a background in understanding consumerism and need help on the intricacies of meeting patient needs, a concept she calls "shopability."

That includes learning how to work with partners to identify and implement consumer-friendly services, something the healthcare industry has traditionally avoided.

"The technology behind that is actually not a challenge," she says. "Change management is complex, [as is] learning how to collaborate. A lot of [health systems] need help as they make that transition toward consumerism."

Federal efforts to support interoperability and data transparency are helping to push healthcare organizations closer to sharing data, Lu and Valdes say. But the going isn't easy for an industry that has traditionally chosen to protect its own data in silos. Some are reluctant to share that data, especially with patients.

"They have to [come around to the idea] of how do I not just comply with a rule," Valdes says, but also invest in transformation that puts that data before both the patient and the provider and prompts them to collaborate.

In this era of shifting attitudes toward data, Lu says Northwell Health has to be "the harmonizer," leveraging data from multiple sources to create a longitudinal health record. Health systems that, as Valdes says, "own the process" will likely stand out among in an increasingly competitive field for care services.

"This is a journey toward personalized care," Valdes says. "How do we take a consumer and build an experience around them?"

“We're in the business of delivering care. We need to be in perfect synergy … with the patient experience.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation at HealthLeaders.


Health systems must learn to design care around a patient's healthcare journey.

To move to a better patient experience, Northwell Health SVP and CIO Sophy Lu says a health system must commit to understanding consumer-based care and using digital health technology.

Healthcare leadership must develop a strategy that addresses how to gather, analyze, and use data from both inside and outside the enterprise to improve patient care.

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