CIGNA Embraces Online Collaboration; SharePoint-based Internal Sites Now Total More than 1400

03 May 2011 | Dr. Dennis Schmuland, Chief health strategy officer, U.S. Health and Life Sciences, Microsoft

To improve patient health and outcomes while reducing medical costs, insurers and physicians must work together to streamline business processes across organizational boundaries. The challenge is that the business processes which drive the greatest value are currently quite costly and inefficient. They are often people-driven, manually intense and paper- or phone-call based. However, they are also the processes that are most ripe for moving to an online, collaborative environment.

Forward-thinking plans such as CIGNA recognize that the right technology tools, when used to their full potential, can help them create not only a collaboration platform, but more importantly, a collaborative culture. In doing so, they ensure that information, ideas and skills are shared seamlessly across business units and borders.

In 2009, CIGNA used their current investment in SharePoint Server, Microsoft’s collaboration platform, to address a unique need inside of their organization. In doing so, CIGNA sparked a three year period in which use of SharePoint expanded throughout the organization, with more than 1400 collaboration projects in place today.
 
It all started with a proof of concept project to create an internal, online forum to enhance communication and knowledge sharing among a dozen or so geographically-dispersed behavioral health medical directors. In the past, they experienced challenges in working closely together, and traditionally could only do so via phone or email. Microsoft and CIGNA worked together to build the site, which was then tested for 6 months. During the testing phase, the medical directors built their own profiles using “My Site”, which was valuable as a tool to get to know one another better and understand the different areas of expertise among the group. Medical directors posted photos and biographical information on My Site as well.
 
Now in full production, more than 60 medical directors throughout the organization have access and the site addresses most of the directors’ daily workflow needs. It includes a central announcement section, a discussion forum, and an area for commonly used documents and educational materials.
 
To get a better sense of how CIGNA is using SharePoint to improve internal collaboration among its medical directors and across the company, I interviewed CIGNA’s Dr. Anil Sipahimalani, a medical director and co-leader of the project.
 
What was the main driver behind the creation of the CIGNA Medical Directors Online Community?
Our medical directors are spread all over country from California to Minnesota to Florida. Many work from home and we felt it was important to find innovative and inexpensive ways to encourage them to collaborate with one another regardless of where they are at any given time. Prior to the proof of concept project, medical directors mainly communicated via email and phone calls. While useful, these communication methods occur less frequently than optimal, resulting in missed opportunities to leverage the collective skills and insights of the community. We wanted to close that gap, and give them the tools to improve their ability to work together more frequently.
 
What were some of the challenges you encountered during the proof of concept?
In general, doctors tend to be a bit skeptical about technology. The most frequent question we had at the start was “we have email so do we really need something else?” and “I don’t have time in my daily schedule to use different, possibly time-consuming technology.” We explained that this tool was not meant to increase the workload. Rather, it was meant to optimize productivity, increase communication and speed up the time it takes to find the resources needed to do their jobs. In the proof of concept phase, we had to have a separate process for logging on to the website, which proved a significant initial barrier to utilization, but have since removed that barrier.
 
How did you overcome the initial skepticism?
We made the initial site very user-friendly. We fixed the log-on issue and now everything is seamless. For example, our medical directors save the site as a favorite or an icon on their desktop. We also created a column called “top sites” which compiled our medical directors’ most frequently used web sites or programs. The idea was that by creating an easy to use, “one-stop shopping” resource, it would enable them to see value in the site and ultimately use the additional components as well. We also made sure we had strong support from senior leadership to encourage adoption by the wider medical director population within CIGNA.
 
Once the medical directors were up and running, what sort of response did you get?
The initial plan was to use the site first as a read-only site so physicians would have time to familiarize themselves with the technology. However, because the product was easy to use and required little training, our medical directors were eager to post announcements, respond to posts, create their own My Sites, and expand their use of the portal to other applications. So we created a clinical discussion area where members pose questions to colleagues. For instance, I posed a question on Hashimoto’s encephalitis and received an excellent, detailed reply from a medical director who was an expert in the field within an hour. We also set up a “one-stop-shop” for documents needed for daily workflow activities. Before SharePoint, documents were emailed as soon as they came out and then you had to go search for it when you needed it later. Now much of the information we need is stored in one, easily accessible place.
The site grew more valuable the longer it was in operation. Over the last three months, we’ve had an average of 3,200 hits per month on the site. Members told us they valued the site most for its easy to use Announcement and document sections, the ability to interact with others on the discussion forum and the benefits of getting to know one another better with the My Site area.
 
Are there other ways in which the online community increased collaboration and productivity?
During the proof of concept phase, our senior leadership asked the medical directors to come up with new ideas for how CIGNA could improve care and streamline costs for our members. One of our senior medical directors started a thread on a forum asking for input on this topic. Seventy-five percent of our initial members shared great ideas which were then hashed out on the forum, and the top idea was then presented to senior leadership. This format enabled medical directors who are really busy to add their input whenever they had free time, as opposed to trying to coordinate schedules around conference calls or respond immediately to email threads.
 
It sounds like the initial project was a success – how else is SharePoint being used within CIGNA?
There are now more than 1,400 SharePoint sites within the larger enterprise and the CIGNA IT teams’ support has been great. With their skill and flexibility, it’s easy for users to request a new SharePoint site when a business need for it arises, and the site can be created within just a few days.
 
As you can see from our discussion with Dr. Anil Sipahimalani, CIGNA’s success with SharePoint and collaboration programs across the organization lies not just in extensive use of the technology, but also in the fact that its senior leadership embraced the many opportunities afforded by collaborative technology. They encourage their employees to view technology as a critical means to improve information sharing and streamline workflow for greater productivity and ultimately, better service for its members at lower operational costs.
Dr. Dennis Schmuland
Chief health strategy officer, U.S. Health and Life Sciences, Microsoft

Microsoft in Health Blog

About the Author

Dr. Dennis Schmuland | Chief health strategy officer, U.S. Health and Life Sciences, Microsoft

Dr. Dennis Schmuland is the Chief Health Strategy Officer, U.S. Health and Life Sciences, Microsoft. He drives strategy across the US Health sector. Read more