Although many hospitals still have a lot of paper records on file, digitization of information is exploding in the healthcare industry. Not only are the existing physical patient records and files being digitized, but new sources of data are multiplying rapidly, including personal fitness trackers, connected scales, blood pressure monitors and eventually genomic data. This may all turn out to be a good thing in the long term. But given most large hospitals already have more than 50 different sources of data from which they pull data, the focus needs to be on providing a single coherent view of data to clinicians, regardless of where the data resides.

That’s a major challenge of data aggregation and interoperability and this is a key feature of digital transformation in the healthcare sector. In our latest 451 Research digital transformation survey we identified four key pillars – or goals – common in most digital transformation efforts. The most important one, according to our survey respondents is improving the organization’s overall operating efficiency. And for those in the healthcare sector, the key to improving operational efficiency is making better use of healthcare data to improve decision-making. It was seen as the top objective by 44% of respondents – the most of any category. The other three overall goals for digital transformation were enhancing customer (patient) experience, increasing the level of agility of the organization and better managing business risk.

One of the major sources of data are electronic health records (EHR), the use of which has exploded in the US in part driven by the regulations of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. The spread has been quick and comprehensive, the point where at the end of 2015 87% of office-based US physicians were using one (up from 21% in 2004). But important as they are, EHRs only contain part of the healthcare data needed to make clinical decisions, and interoperability is much more complex than focusing on any one system.

So in order to undergo any true digital transformation – as opposed to tinkering around the edges, adding some technology here and there but continuing to do things the same old ways – interoperability needs to be tackled head-on.

To achieve this, a patient-centered approach, rather than EHR-centered approach is needed, with all the data being gathered around the patient, regardless of its source. How to do that dynamically (think how an online travel booking service works) is far from easy however. Standards are emerging such as Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) to facilitate lightweight integration between systems, but a lot of work is usually required to make that single patient-centered view a reality. That’s prompting many healthcare providers to seek help from third party providers.

Other forces are at play here too, as data volumes and variety increase. Healthcare professionals are recognizing that humans can’t handle this load alone – they need more help from technology in the form artificial intelligence and advanced analytics. Indeed, when asked what are the three most disruptive technologies specific to the healthcare industry that respondents expect their organization would consider adopting, the top answer was artificial intelligence and machine learning, with a majority (54%) saying they are considering adopting it.

The healthcare industry therefore faces simultaneous challenges and opportunities. It’s challenged by vast increases in data from all sorts of new locations, many of which weren’t even invented when EHR adoption started to take off. The sector’s often limited IT resources may need help to cope with these data aggregation and interoperability challenges.

But now that so much data is becoming available, the promise of truly personalized – and more preventative healthcare, delivered to patients in the most efficient way possible is now within reach.

Editor’s Note: You can review the full findings from the CenturyLink-commissioned survey with 451 Research in the  Digital Transformation in Healthcare Report. To learn more about CenturyLink’s capabilities as a trusted retail transformation partner, visit this page or contact your CenturyLink account representative.

This article was originally posted to Forbes Voice on September 18, 2017.

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