COVID-19 Pushed Us Beyond Testing Digital Health


During the first month of the pandemic, we went through three phases: a brief period of shock, followed by organizing ourselves as systems to respond, then implementing rapid-fire execution of solutions. Everyone knew their area of accountability. The emergency response structure was up and running, and decisions were being made on an hourly, not daily, basis. 

This was an intense period for everyone, but it allowed us as a health system to come together at a pace that I don’t think anyone thought was possible. One of the areas I am accountable for at OSF HealthCare is innovation and digital health. In the early stages of the pandemic, we rapidly implemented a lot of digital solutions that we had been testing but had not scaled more broadly. 

OSF was able to roll out several digital solutions very quickly: we created and installed a chat bot through our website to help COVID patients screen and navigate the system; a 24/7 nurse triage line to escalate the patients to where providers were also on hand for an immediate virtual visit; built a pandemic health worker program to connect digital monitoring tools in the homes of symptomatic patients; created an escalation point for those that needed more intense monitoring; and developed a hospital-at-home program to keep people safe in their own homes. 

Pre-pandemic, these initiatives would have taken years to test and implement. But the health system plans to take the knowledge we gained and scale some digital services that are far more connected and comprehensive than we would have done otherwise. 

As a leader during the pandemic, I’ve had to be agile and determine quickly what type of leadership style to apply to the current situation. During this time, there has been a key need for presence with the teams I was leading. I don’t mean physical presence but cognitive or virtual presence. For my team, knowing I was completely connected in the moment and could help navigate when they needed me was reassuring for them. This type of leadership requires an ability to acutely switch roles. Sometimes you are the conduit to information, or navigator, sometimes you are the pacesetter to ensure your team doesn’t get lost in the moment, and sometimes you are merely supporting the work and deferring to your team’s expertise.   

We are all capable of making decisions faster and with less-than-perfect information to achieve amazing results. Healthcare can and should move faster. We also learned a lot about the power of building a digital solution from beginning to end with the user at the center of the experience. 

Michelle Conger is chief strategy officer, OSF HealthCare, and CEO, OSF Saint Gabriel Digital Health, in Peoria, Ill. (