Build new muscle memory with IT to transform healthcare

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Is muscle memory a good thing? Or a bad thing? And how does it hinder digital transformation, particularly in the healthcare industry?

Most of us have heard of muscle memory – it’s the embedded learning that comes from repeated practice or exposure to a situation. It’s what allows us to perform a task smoothly, efficiently and almost unconsciously, for example driving, riding a bike or playing an instrument.

That seems like a good thing – right? But what if your muscle memory has codified bad behaviour? What if you have an inefficient golf swing, or you learned to finger guitar chords the wrong way? In that case, muscle memory can be a trap that holds you back from achieving excellence.

Change requires unlearning, and relearning. It’s a process that can be so frustrating you may give up. If you’re really motivated, you’ll make the investment, but you have to be convinced the benefit outweighs the effort.

The concept of muscle memory can be extended to organisations as well. Businesses tend to create processes and culture that reinforce a particular way of operating, making decisions or working with customers. As with physical actions, organisational muscle memory makes for smooth operations – except when there’s a need for radical change.

Healthcare delivery incorporates both physical muscle memory – inserting an IV, performing a surgical procedure, positioning an imaging device – and organisational muscle memory – shift transitions, pre-procedure checklists, patient authorisation processes, etc. Muscle memory of both sorts complicates the introduction of health information technology (IT) whether an electronic health record (EHR), a new device or new analytics, because it disrupts an entrenched process in ways that can slow down performance and lead to intense frustration. For example, studies have shown that EHRs can contribute to physician and nursing burnout.

The incredible challenges facing healthcare providers right now make it imperative that we find better, more efficient ways to manage and deliver care. Staffing shortages are prompting the widespread adoption of virtual-first care models. The effective treatment of chronic disease requires a shift from solo to team-based care. These are theoretically good things, but require substantive changes in the organisation and the individuals that comprise that organisation.

In other words, we need to make changes that go against our collective muscle memory.

If we are going to build the new muscle memory that will move healthcare forward, leaders need to do four things:

  1. Establish a genuine sense of urgency by articulating a compelling vision for why change is necessary, including both the consequences of the status quo, and the benefits of the investment.
  2. Understand the stakeholders and what matters to each of them. What is worthwhile to the organisation may be very different than what matters to the individual – there need to be significant benefits for all to create lasting change.
  3. “Work with the Willing” and build momentum through incremental quick wins.
  4. Leverage IT as both a change enabler and a reinforcer. This of course, implies that your technology is designed, configured and deployed in ways that support desired new behaviours.

Digital transformation occurs when IT empowers and reinforces change to the collective muscle memory as one element of an inspiring vision – perhaps safer care, more time for patients, or better work-life balance. Once you build the muscle memory for the next step in your transformation, it will make it easy to perform moving forward. Change is never easy, but excellence is always worth the investment.

Author: Don Woodlock

Author Img

Don Woodlock is Vice President, Healthcare for InterSystems, a creative data technology provider dedicated to helping customers solve the most critical scalability, interoperability, and speed problems. He joined InterSystems in 2017 to oversee the company’s HealthShare and TrakCare family of products created to empower the transformation of health and care through comprehensive, shared health information.

Company: InterSystems


InterSystems is the information engine that powers some of the world’s most important applications. In healthcare, finance, government, and other sectors where lives and livelihoods are at stake, InterSystems has been a strategic technology provider since 1978. InterSystems is a privately held company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA), with offices worldwide, and its software products are used daily by millions of people in more than 80 countries. For more information, visit InterSystems.com

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