Healthcare Companies Must Understand Technical Debt
Kiltesh Patel is the founder and CEO of tab32, a complete cloud-based technology platform for the dental industry.
With tech layoffs at an all-time high, it's crucially important that companies identify inefficiencies and costs.
While layoffs have been happening across departments, according to consulting firm Protiviti, tech companies spend an average of 30% of their IT budgets on technical debt management. This management work consists of maintaining code bases and internal systems as well as making improvements to reduce the number of existing problems that can slow a company down—also known as "technical debt."
Some level of tech debt and subsequent management is unavoidable, but companies that don't adequately upgrade systems may find themselves wasting inordinate time and money on these efforts. Additionally, when tech companies lay off over 200,000 employees in less than half a year, they lose IT staff who understand the organization's technical debt. Replacements can take months or even years to find and address these once-understood technical debt issues—if they're ever resolved at all.
More insidious is inadvertent technical debt. These are the bugs and issues that workers make in error and are only resolved after a deliberate, specific search for otherwise unknown issues. With the tech industry scrambling to reorganize, this type of routine maintenance can easily fall by the wayside—creating ongoing issues that fester as time passes.
Healthcare companies must be especially wary of technical debt because their systems are often outdated and healthcare data tends to scale rapidly.
Technical Debt In Healthcare Data
The sheer amount of data generated in the healthcare industry makes the problem of technical debt particularly pressing for companies supporting practitioners. In 2021, dental practices alone generated 1.4 billion images such as X-rays and MRI scans. Each individual scan is its own source of data, with provider notes and patient data expanding the scope of what's stored.
Because the healthcare industry and dental industry can be slow to adopt change, much of this data gets stored on legacy hardware. These are the servers that exist under the desks of dentists and administrators—storage devices that are vulnerable to physical and digital damage and that must be replaced every five to seven years.
The spiraling costs of legacy storage systems and the technical debt they inherit are large and eventually reach consumers. These expenses can grow exponentially when technical debt inhabits a legacy system. IT providers working in healthcare practices are already busy keeping up with the ever-expanding amount of data, doing their best to maintain servers and other hardware meant for a different era. This leaves little time for troubleshooting larger issues that may arise from outdated hardware that lacks customization.
Healthcare data is also highly sensitive; HIPAA regulations mean we have to be extremely careful about the way this data is handled. Managing it correctly requires stricter scrutiny and tighter regulations on access than in data management in many other fields. Leaders at healthcare technology companies must consider these realities when doing business planning, but all of these factors can complicate the technical debt problem in healthcare—which is why it's crucial that it's addressed head-on.
The Technical Debt Cure
You wouldn't go into a healthcare appointment expecting your provider to use outdated treatment technology. Patients expect the highest quality of care in their treatment, and adopting the same approach to technical debt is the only solution.
While a shift to cloud-based systems can help minimize technical debt and streamline workflows in the long term, some healthcare companies may be hesitant to make the transition. This is understandable, as upgrading software takes time, money and a forward-thinking strategy. However, it can really pay off in the long run. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Get clear on your budget and business plan.
A cloud migration can present some upfront costs, even if it saves you money in the long term. It's important to plan for this by confirming a budget, communicating the long-term benefits to all members of your team and cutting extraneous costs elsewhere. If you don't already have a business plan, make one. You'll need to understand your finances and goals in order to determine spending. Executive buy-in is also essential for ensuring a successful migration. Leadership needs to understand why teams will benefit from cloud migration as a long-term strategy.
Consider where you can reduce other costs right now. For example, how can you increase patient retention to avoid spending on new patient onboarding? What software or IT services can you cut after migrating to a cloud-based system?
2. Upgrade your workflows.
It's likely you'll need to redesign your workflows to account for the new software. Consider feedback from both staff and patients to understand where and how you can improve. Make sure to clearly document any new processes and make them readily accessible to all team members. Update all training manuals and offer training sessions. Cloud-based systems are easier to deploy than on-premises hardware and require shorter training times for staff thanks to digital support.
3. Comb through your data for errors.
Data migration is also an opportunity to do some spring cleaning. You don't need to transfer every piece of data you've collected over the course of your practice. You likely have information that's no longer correct or relevant. Comb through your data to make sure it's up-to-date so you're set up for success after migration. You may also end up with less data to migrate, easing the process.
4. Create a migration plan and timeline.
Map out where your data will reside in the new system before you relocate it. Create a list of your data sources and make a migration plan with a detailed timeline. Be realistic about how much time you need to support the transition to new software.
5. Utilize external support.
Don't be afraid to take advantage of the IT support your new software may offer. These teams can suggest the best ways to update workflows or manage hurdles you may be facing. If your team is unable to understand technical debt issues on its own, third-party labs and think tanks can provide expertise.
Whether healthcare organizations pursue these changes on their own or tap external help, there is a pressing need to reduce the technical debt burden. Once the importance of tackling technical debt reaches the healthcare industry as a whole, we'll see encompassing changes that truly improve the state of our well-being.