Not Just Techies Anymore

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As a recruiter, Hodges says she is seeing a much wider variety of qualifications in today's CIOs versus those of 10 or even five years ago. While some still come from a traditional computer or information services background, many are migrating from clinical or other operational areas, she says. "As CIOs have had to learn how the clinical part of the hospital works, they've inadvertently become even more vital as technology's main champions to the rest of the C-suite and providers who often remain unsure of healthcare technology," she says. In addition, Hodges says that as organizations have increased investments in clinical systems, she sees CIOs assume control of information management, biomedical engineering, and other technology-dependent functions.

That shift in responsibility has led to an important shift in reporting structure, as well, says Andrew Hurd, chairman and CEO of healthcare technology company Carefx. In most cases, gone are the days of the CIO reporting to the chief operating officer or the chief financial officer. Now you will more likely see the position elevated to report directly to the CEO, all the while managing an ever-growing team. "The CIO no longer has the luxury of not thinking strategically. The people below him operating at mid-level IT have that luxury now. The CIO needs to be in line with the CEO who's thinking strategically and always thinking four or five years down the road," says Hurd.

A link to the docs
As a physician and a nuclear medicine specialist, Lynn Witherspoon, MD, certainly fits the description of a not-so-typical CIO. And as chief medical information officer at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, Witherspoon says he's had a clear view of how the CIO's role has developed over the past several years. "It has become relatively common in larger healthcare organizations to have a physician serve as the link between the medical clinical practice and IT. In our case, as we've expanded our health system quite dramatically, it became clear that having a physician focused on the clinical practice as well as the information technology tools they use had become increasingly important," he says.

By serving as a link between technology and the physician staff, Witherspoon has been able to convert what had been disparate hospital information systems into what is becoming a comprehensive community infrastructure for information systems across the seven-hospital, 35-clinic Ochsner Health System.

Witherspoon says he worries about the CIO who is not able to act as both a technologist and strategist to implement the kind of quality improvement measures that have been put into place at Ochsner.

"It's been incredibly helpful to me to spend as much time as I can with my clinical and operational partners. Together we get focused on a project, whether it's CPOE or EMR, and where in the past we might not think as much about how it fits in with overall culture and strategy of the organization, now these aspects are at the forefront of our decision-making plans," says Witherspoon.

As CIOs have shifted their focus from pure technology to the organization's overall strategy, they've also had to shift the way they think of themselves. The days of operating within a coterie of other technology buffs are over, says Hurd. "You cannot underestimate how important it is now for the CIO to join forces with the rest of the C-suite to think about strategy and how technology works in the context of the business of healthcare. The CIOs who don't do this are going to get left behind."

Kathryn Mackenzie

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