In the healthcare ecosystem, digital technologies have been gaining prevalence, market share, and clinical applicability for years. In the 21st century, the ubiquity of these innovative advancements is increasing.

On the leadership front, many health systems have been lagging behind in terms of bringing the digital age into the C-suite, but that calculus now seems to be irrevocably changing.

The (Digital) Times Are A-Changin’

In early January, the Cleveland Clinic announced that it was promoting one of its own physicians to the position of Chief Research Innovation Officer (CRIO). Dr. Lara Jehi, M.D., has now been installed in this new position, and one can only hope that other influential healthcare organizations will take a page from the Cleveland Clinic’s newly enhanced executive playbook, including the appointing of women to such crucial and timely roles. Their press release reads thus:

“In this newly created position, Dr. Jehi will establish and oversee a robust research informatics environment to advance biomedical research throughout Cleveland Clinic. She will work closely with information technology, research, finance and other key departments to optimize the enterprise’s digital infrastructure to support research activities and accelerate new treatments for patients.

“‘As healthcare has become vastly more data-intensive, the Chief Research Information Officer role will bridge research and patient data with clinical care,’ said James Young, M.D., Cleveland Clinic’s Chief Academic Officer. ‘Dr. Jehi’s expertise as both a data-based researcher and physician will provide strategic vision to leverage large clinical informatics systems to drive innovation.’”

For those closely observing the development of healthcare technology and innovation, this announcement by the highly respected Cleveland Clinic should bring with it a sense that healthcare is beginning to catch up with the exponential change occurring within and without this particular milieu. And with Cleveland’s plan for Dr. Jehi to “work closely with information technology, research, finance and other key departments,” we have hints of how the tech aspects of healthcare must be fully integrated into every aspect of research, care delivery, and management.

According to some reports, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other innovations are already robustly infiltrating the healthcare landscape, and as the century progresses there will be no turning back from this inexorable technological acceleration.

The (Tech) Writing on the Wall

Several decades ago, Laurie Anderson, a highly innovative and tech-savvy musician, futurist, inventor, and performance artist, stated unequivocally that the future of global society was digital. Even in the 1980s, Anderson was reading the technological writing on the wall, likely well before most civilians were aware of these shifts in the cultural wind.

The advent of the consumerized version of the internet in the 1990s seems to have truly ushered in the pace of technological change that we are now experiencing, even though the military, cutting-edge private sector companies, and some universities (e.g., MIT, among others) were already laying the groundwork.

Healthcare has indeed already embraced robotic surgery and the electronic medical record (EMR), but other technologies are also coming to the fore, not the least of which are machine learning and AI. As such innovations develop further and are accessible to more corners of the healthcare system, many organizations will need to follow Cleveland Clinic’s lead and appoint executive officers who can skillfully carry them into the future.

A Seat at the Tech Table

As mentioned above, Cleveland has already made its mark by appointing a female doctor to lead them into the tech-heavy future. Clearly subverting a male-centric tech leadership paradigm long propagated in Silicon Valley, women holding such high-ranking positions sends the message that the healthcare C-suite is open to women with the knowledge and expertise to lead. In this deepening digital age in healthcare and medicine, all parties must be brought to the table as positions such as Chief Information Officer (CIO) become more commonplace.

And when addressing concerns about diversity at the tech table, nurses with facility in the digital realms must also be offered a seat from which they can champion and advocate for their colleagues at the bedside who themselves closely interact with new technologies that directly impact patient care and nursing practice.

Master’s, Ph.D., and DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) programs focused on informatics and tech leadership are increasingly prevalent in the nursing educational system, and it must be widely accepted that nurses must be an integral part of this ongoing conversation, as well as physical and occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, and other providers with a stake in how these changes are introduced and integrated.

Unstoppable Innovation

The pace of innovation and change is — and will continue to be — exponential, and as machine learning, AI, and other developments ripen and mature into the next iterations of advancement, the healthcare C-suite must rise to the occasion.

From Ohio State University’s Innovation Studio to the Cleveland Clinic’s appointment of Dr. Jehi as Chief Research Innovation Officer, we can clearly see that healthcare leadership and technological innovation must be fully integrated and aligned as we collectively move forward.

The future of global healthcare is being written as we speak. Organizations that can embrace and crusade for appropriate leadership and stewardship in the digital age will be the ones to carry us all into an unknown and innovative future ripe with potential, hazard, challenge, and as yet unforeseen advancement and success.