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How to future proof investment in the digital transformation of healthcare

By Sara Dalmasso, Vice-President and General Manager, Omnicell International, a leading provider of supply and medication management solutions and adherence tools for healthcare systems and pharmacies

There is widespread acknowledgment that there has been a deep-rooted lack of investment in healthcare technologies especially when compared with other industries. This was overwhelmingly confirmed in a 2019 survey by Omnicell which found that 87% of pharmacists believe their profession has been slow to adopt new technology. Yet, in recent years, more and more administrative tasks have been added to the workload of healthcare providers while the number of pharmacists and support staff has, in all probability, remained the same.

What makes this lack of investment all the more confusing, is the fact that on the face of it, there is no shortage of evidence that digital solutions can directly improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare. The ‘Autonomous Pharmacy’ vision for example shows clearly how technology will result in a reduction in time spent on manual distribution and administrative tasks and responsibilities, enabling a more patient-centric model with a focus on direct patient safety and care. Within the hospital setting medications will be sorted, picked, labelled, and reconciled at every point of use by innovative technology, significantly reducing the risk of error. All of this will be powered by a connected pharmacy cloud infrastructure which will transform the healthcare environment, providing real-time data insights and predictive analytics. This is an achievable vision and we need to be asking the question – what are the barriers preventing investment in these types of technologies and solutions which can save lives, improve productivity, and drive efficiencies in this vital sector?

Risk versus reward

The investment required for the digital transformation of the healthcare sector is significant, and not without risk. Perhaps the biggest of these risks, and the most daunting for any healthcare provider, is how to integrate new technologies within their existing workflows without causing significant disruption.  Change management is difficult for any organisation in any industry – it requires a level of cultural and behavioural change driven by very specific expertise. It is little wonder, therefore, that many healthcare organisations shy away from it unless it becomes critical. 

And what if, after a large change management process the investment doesn’t deliver as expected? Anyone with a smartphone is already familiar with the pace at which technology moves on – when that challenge is multiplied at an organisational level with significant investment, it is imperative that careful consideration and long-term thought has to be put into any decisions around major technology investments.

The question, therefore, is how can healthcare providers minimise the risk in this investment especially if that isn’t their particular area of expertise? We all know that the digital transformation of healthcare is not optional – it is already happening and those that ignore this movement will quickly be left behind. Harnessing new technology can help to drive much needed efficiencies within the hospital environment, as well as ensuring unparalleled standards of patient safety especially in the key area of medication and medical inventory management and administration. How can hospitals ensure they are maximising the value of new technology and what steps can they take to future-proof their spending?

Looking outside the sector

To understand potential solutions to this challenge, it is valuable to look at other industries which have long-established models for offsetting large capital costs, to the advantage of both the manufacturers and their customers. 

An example of this is the aerospace industry, where engine manufacturers often don’t actually sell engines to airlines – instead they sell ‘flying hours’. For an airline, this removes the burden of engine maintenance and transfers associated risk back to the manufacturer. Instead, the airline can concentrate their efforts on their core business outcome of servicing passengers and/or carrying cargo. For the manufacturer, it is within their interest to ensure the engines are in service as much as possible to attain flying hours, guaranteeing their business model is in complete alignment with that of their customer. Furthermore, as the original manufacturer of the engine, with all of this unrivalled knowledge and expertise, there is nobody better placed to get the best possible performance out of the product. 

While this “technology as a service” model is not yet widespread in the healthcare sector the move towards it is well underway. Already, most healthcare providers expect far more from manufacturers than simply to receive a product and then run with it independently, with minimal back-up service or support. There is limited value in having the best technologies in the world if your in-house team aren’t as effective as possible with it. We know from experience that when Omnicell partner with a hospital and spend time getting to know their different workflows we are often able to make significant time efficiencies and associated cost savings very quickly. 

Working towards shared goals

This partnership approach is essential to give healthcare providers the confidence to invest in technologies which will transform their ways of working. For example, an automated pharmacy can ensure that the right dose of medication is given to the right patient at the right time.  This equals better healthcare outcomes for patients and a more efficient system for staff.  It can also help to tackle soaring healthcare costs by reducing the risk of medication errors and effectively managing medication stock levels. 

The technology manufacturer and service provider must take responsibility for gaining a deep level of understanding and insight into a customer’s needs including patient and staff safety, finance, efficiency, and regulatory compliance during the engagement and consultation process. Implementation, too, is a hands-on process. 

At Omnicell our team of experts include industry certified project managers, clinicians, pharmacists, and change specialists who understand how to integrate products into customer environments and workflows in order to develop a successful digital strategy to generate the desired outcomes. It is a process we have done many times as it is in our best interests to leverage this functional knowledge on behalf of our customers.

However, to truly add value, this partnership needs to be part of the ongoing digital strategy.   This enables us to optimise workflows with a long-term view to facilitate continuous improvement over many years. 

This description of a partnership approach is still far from the aerospace example which I discussed earlier. For that, the manufacturer and customer critical success factors need to be much more deeply interwoven, and therefore the risk much more evenly spread. Perhaps, however, the healthcare sector might review and consider alternative payment models? These could be based, at least in part, on the associated cost savings and efficiencies achieved from implementing the new technology. This model would have the potential of revolutionising the supply chain, changing spending habits and driving better decision-making.

Getting the most out of technology

To truly get hospital providers engaged and excited about technology as an investment rather than a ‘necessary evil’, they need to understand what is coming next, because in truth we are still only on the cusp of what is possible with the Internet of Things, Big Data and Machine Learning.  Through every connected device and machine that hospitals use, they are constantly gathering vast amounts of data on performance. Combined with advanced analytics, this can enable us to proactively plan maintenance and repairs to minimise disruption and to recommend changes to workflows, which ultimately helps to achieve the very best outcomes for patients. This digital transformation is comparable to the successful application of technology across many industries.

Technology presents the healthcare sector with the opportunity to reduce costs, improve efficiency and enhance safety and clinical performance. So, while there are good reasons for hospitals to be cautious, with the right partners they can minimise risk and start sharing and celebrating long-term success.”

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1.  Survey of 63 pharmacists commissioned by Omnicell, April/May 2019

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