As technology becomes a key component of national healthcare reform efforts, chief information officers must manage a lot more than information.
The chief information officer has long been seen as the keeper of information resources—the keep-the-lights-on guy, so to speak. That limited description encapsulated the typical healthcare CIO's perceived role throughout the 1990s and into the early part of this decade.
Then came the calls for transparency. And pressure to find new quality and patient safety solutions. And a national economic stimulus package that allocates some $19 billion for healthcare information technology. Those factors, among others, have not only helped make IT more critical than ever for healthcare organizations trying to plot a strategic path for the future, but also made the life of a CIO a lot more complicated. "Keeper of information resources" may still constitute a portion of the CIO's job description, but that description promises to only grow longer and more complex as IT continues its transformation from a luxury for select organizations to a centerpiece of efforts to reform an entire industry. "If you look at the for-profit sector, most of the time the person who is running operations is also responsible for making sure the technology works," says Asif Ahmad, vice president for diagnostic services and CIO for Duke University Health System and Duke University Medical Center. "Healthcare needs to follow in those footsteps."
Since taking the IT helm at Duke, a significant part of Ahmad's mission has been to create a diverse tech staff. "If you look at this team, you will see physicians, nurses, and researchers working alongside those who have technology backgrounds. The point of this is that then they are not just accountable for technology, but also they are peers driving operations strategy and actually delivering on care," he says.
While having an IT team composed of people from outside the technological inner circle is important, equally crucial is having a CIO who is engaged in the clinical and business aspects of operations, says Ahmad. "If we truly ever want to get adoption of these technologies up, CIOs cannot be sitting on the sidelines—which they have historically been doing, saying, ‘Well, it's the chief medical officer's or CEO's job to really rally the troops.' CIOs must get out of their comfort zone, which is usually technology for most of them, and learn clinical operations in order to deploy clinical solutions," he says.
Linda Hodges, vice president and information technology practice leader at executive search firm Witt-Kieffer, says technology's central role in efforts to improve patient care and refine processes throughout the hospital means today's CIO must be firmly entrenched in the operational side of the business. "Strong leadership strategy and a knowledge and understanding of healthcare operations are vital," she says. "It's really no longer just a person to be responsible for technology, because so much of what's happening today involves the transformation of how care is delivered with the implementation of these new complex systems."