The adoption of IT in healthcare systems has, in general, followed the same pattern as other industries. In the 1950s, when institutions began using new technology to automate highly standardized and repetitive tasks such as accounting and payroll, healthcare payors and other industry stakeholders also began using IT to process vast amounts of statistical data. Twenty years later, the second wave of IT adoption arrived. It did two things: it helped integrate different parts of core processes (manufacturing and HR, for example) within individual organizations, and it supported B2B processes such as supply-chain management for different institutions within and outside individual industries. As for its effects on the healthcare sector, this second wave of IT adoption helped bring about, for example, the electronic health card in Germany. It was also a catalyst for the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act in the United States—an effort to promote the adoption of health-information technology—and the National Programme for IT in the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Regardless of their immediate impact, these programs helped create an important and powerful infrastructure that certainly will be useful in the future.

Many institutions in the private and public sector have already moved to the third wave of IT adoption—full digitization of their entire enterprise, including digital products, channels, and processes, as well as advanced analytics that enable entirely new operating models. No longer limited to helping organizations do a certain task better or more efficiently, digital technology has the potential to affect every aspect of business and private life, enabling smarter choices, allowing people to spend more time on tasks they deem valuable, and often fundamentally transforming the way value is created. What will this third wave of IT adoption look like for healthcare?

Players in the healthcare industry were relatively successful at—and benefited from—the first and second waves of IT adoption. But they struggled to successfully manage the myriad stakeholders, regulations, and privacy concerns required to build a fully integrated healthcare IT system. This is partly because the first and second wave of IT adoption focused more on processes and less on patient needs. Still, programs like the N3 communication network in the United Kingdom and the secure telematics platform in Germany have created powerful infrastructures that have the potential to support the third wave of digital services in healthcare—but only if stakeholders take the appropriate next steps.

Now that patients around the world have grown more comfortable using digital networks and services, even for complex and sensitive issues such as healthcare (successful websites DrEd, PatientsLikeMe, and ZocDoc are just three examples of this trend), we believe the time has come for healthcare systems, payors, and providers to go “all in” on their digital strategies. The question is, where should they start?

Nonhealthcare organizations that pioneered the third wave of digitization began by trying to understand what their customers really wanted; they then built their initial digital products and services based on that information and methodically expanded their offerings and customer base from there. We believe this model would work for healthcare as well. Success in the third wave of digital depends very much on first understanding patients’ digital preferences in both channel and service. But many digital healthcare strategies are still driven by myths or information that is no longer true.

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