The coronavirus pandemic has been quite challenging for the healthcare system in many ways, not least with respect to digitalization. As KPMG’s most recent survey of hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and psychiatric clinics reveals, digital transformation is proving to be more complex than originally thought. Providers feel even less prepared for digitalization than they did just two years ago.

Digitalization is rapidly opening up a growing number of opportunities in the healthcare sector. More and more Swiss healthcare providers are turning to telemedicine, patient portals and digital support for diagnosis or treatment processes. That, in turn, is increasing the complexity of their own digital transformations, particularly with respect to the corresponding interfaces to patients, staff and upstream or downstream healthcare providers. A more comprehensive understanding of the scope of digitalization has meant that the acute hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and psychiatric clinics surveyed view themselves as less well-equipped for digital transformation than they had been just two years ago: Whereas 13 percent of the respondents had felt extremely well-prepared in 2019, not one single organization echoed that sentiment this year. At the same time, the share of poorly prepared healthcare providers tripled from three to nine percent.

No comprehensive digital focus

“Healthcare providers’ more pessimistic self-assessment is partly based on their experiences with the coronavirus pandemic,” explains Marc-André Giger, Sector Head of Public Sector. Efforts to tackle pandemic-related problems revealed both the complexities of digitalization as well as a need for the organizations surveyed to catch up. Obstacles hampering the implementation of digitalization initiatives also became apparent that had not previously been recognized as such. “The results of the survey show that Swiss healthcare providers have obviously underestimated digital transformation,” summarizes Giger.

At least it seems that the healthcare providers have now recognized what’s in the offing: When asked whether they had a clearly defined digitalization strategy, around a quarter of those surveyed in 2019 agreed “strongly” with the statement; in 2021, this figure rose to just under a third. However, the number of institutions indicating that they agree “somewhat” to having a clear digitalization strategy decreased from 53 percent in 2019 to 35 percent in 2021. “If you’re looking to be as well-positioned and prepared as possible for digital transformation, a clear strategy is indispensable. Given their need to cope with the pandemic, though, it’s understandable that their strategic focus didn’t prioritize digitalization over the past two years,” says Giger as he puts the situation into context.

Lack of resources the biggest obstacle

Healthcare providers are willing to push ahead with their digital transformations and over the past few years, for example, they have re-evaluated projects, strategically realigned their organizations, adapted their organizational structures and created new roles to that end. There is a huge gap, however, between the investments needed and the amounts budgeted: Medium-sized hospitals, in particular, expect their investment needs to increase to a level that actually exceeds that of large hospitals. In fact, 50 percent of medium-sized hospitals can no longer cover their current needs with the budget they have available to them.

If budgets are left unchanged, the situation will become even more acute in the coming years: 93 percent of medium-sized hospitals would not be able to cover their needs in five years with their current budget. Healthcare providers consider the lack of resources to be the biggest obstacle preventing faster implementation (67 percent of respondents). The complexity of the IT landscape (52 percent of respondents) as well as a reluctance to make radical decisions (43 percent of respondents) are other major obstacles facing healthcare providers.

Successful implementation of digitalization hinges on cooperation

Cooperative arrangements could alleviate the lack of resources, in particular, at least to a certain extent. While more than half the healthcare providers surveyed could imagine collaborating with competitors or other cooperation partners, the survey shows a downward trend with respect to plans to collaborate on digital transformations: In 2021, just under 30 percent of respondents indicated they would “not” or “probably not” launch further collaboration initiatives compared with just one fifth of those surveyed in 2019.

According to Marc-André Giger, healthcare providers’ more critical view of collaboration and partnerships can be attributed to the numerous challenges involved in joint initiatives of this nature, including having a shared vision, difficulties related to contractual arrangements and even the complexities of collaboration at the organizational and technical level, to name just a few examples.

Focus on patient welfare

Patients are still the biggest drivers of digital transformation in the healthcare system. When asked about their motive for digitalization, three quarters of the healthcare providers cited their desire to improve the patient experience and satisfaction. 69 percent of those surveyed indicated that communication with upstream and downstream healthcare providers also plays a major role in their desire to implement a digital transformation, followed by an expected improvement in patient safety (62 percent of respondents).

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A total of 38 healthcare providers participated in the study – 23 of which acute hospitals (university hospitals and mainly central hospitals), eight rehabilitation clinics and seven psychiatric clinics (mainly cantonal psychiatric services) – from across all language regions and representing organizations of all different sizes.

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