Technology Serves Best When it’s Invisible, Yet Supports Changes in Care Delivery

Huntzinger Advisor Skip Hubbard explains how technology not only affects the bottom line but how it helps provider organizations manage financial pressures, especially during a pandemic.

Provider organizations are using technology to help manage resources and deliver care during the COVID-19 crisis. They’ll need the new forms of technology on which they’re relying to emerge from the pandemic and manage existing and future financial pressures.

“The pandemic has hurt provider organizations,” said Skip Hubbard, a Huntzinger Management Group Advisor who has a unique perspective on the intersection of information technology and provider performance. He came to the company after serving as senior vice president and CIO for Bon Secours Health System and as vice president and CIO of Mercy health in St. Louis.

Hubbard has a Masters in Business Administration and a degree in accounting, but has been involved in information technology since the 1960s. That combination of experience enables him to speak clearly to how technology can affect the bottom line and, in particular, how to help provider organizations manage the overt financial pressures resulting from the pandemic. Now, he brings that mix of backgrounds to assist the boards of directors of healthcare providers and other industry organizations.

“Having a background in finance really rounds you out,” he said. “When I was a CIO in my last position, the finance department respected me because I talked their language.” Now, as a board member, Hubbard sees organizations wrestling with questions for which technology supplies only a part of the answer – Are we doing the things we need to be doing? Are we protecting our assets and our people? How do we fit in and meld with the community?

Technology isn’t an end in itself, but it’s a means to an end that has financial, functional and care delivery implications. In fact, technology is performing best when it’s not the key focus of healthcare discussions. “When technology is almost invisible, it’s a good thing,” Hubbard said. “I’ve struggled with this; I’ve always wanted technology to be in the forefront. But how do you make it almost invisible, like water or electrical service? That’s what happens if you’re doing a good job.”

Technology during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that invisibility factor. Healthcare organizations were able to quickly shift to new ways to deliver care, enabled by technology resources such as telehealth, that were able to provide both continuity of care and safety in delivering it. “Now, with COVID in place, the technology is getting used a lot more; it’s one of those things that’s a real help in what we’re doing,” Hubbard said. “Imagine if we were still on paper systems; this (pandemic) would be a big, big problem. How would that work if we were trying to do telemedicine? How do we get this record to where the caregiver needs it?”

Still, big changes are needed in the technology supporting healthcare organizations, he contended. “The billing aspect is so cumbersome and complicated, and there’s such a time lag between when services are delivered and when we get paid. In general, computerization of the billing process came first, and now, the clinical side (of IT) seems to be moving ahead of the billing side. Business Intelligence and A.I. need to move forward quickly.”

Financial pressures on healthcare organizations have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Reimbursements for treating COVID-19 patients hasn’t compensated for the loss of revenue because of reductions in other healthcare services, such as elective surgeries and even emergency department visits. As a board member for a multihospital system with 15 facilities, generally in small communities, Hubbard said the board is wrestling with the impact of changing service levels caused by the pandemic.

“This throws a wrench into what we were looking to do, and volumes went down to near zero,” he said. “As we come out of this, we’re looking at how do we track what’s going on, what should we be seeing, what should we be collecting from insurance companies, do we have the right mix of providers for the diseases or conditions that patients have and more.”

COVID has set derailed providers’ strategic and business plans, and the recovery could take two to three years, “depending on the election and what’s going on in healthcare,” Hubbard concluded. “Anything that’s going to cause change will take multiple years to ripple down the pike. We’ll have to see if we can catch up to where we used to be. I hope there will be a path to find a better way to pay for healthcare for people.”