Healthcare CIOs: You've got the tech chops, but are you ready to lead?

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In past years, it was pretty easy to pluck out a theme for the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. Over the years, the big topics of conversation centered around electronic medical records implementation, for example. (Remember the big bang versus slow rollout debate?)

There were years where CIOs were worried about projects such as installing wireless systems, investing in big ticket equipment and devices and using RTLS to track it. More recently, it's been about the ICD-10 coding system overhaul or Meaningful Use.

This year felt a little different to me. Sure, CIOs were talking about EMRs, Meaningful Use, information exchange, interoperability, and data analytics. But in a number of interviews I conducted during the New Orleans event, they also were talking about change management, strategic plans, staffing needs, quality and patient safety. Clearly, CIOs are concerned not only with information technology, hardware and software, but they also are paying more attention to leadership issues.

During the conference, I sat down with Russell Branzell, the CEO of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Colorado Health Medical Group and the CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives to talk about the changing roles, responsibilities and core competencies of today's healthcare CIO--and what it takes to be an effective leader. 

FierceHealthIT: What are the core competencies of CIOs today, and how does it differ in healthcare compared to other industries?

Branzell: Most CIOs in other industries--and this is a big generalization--are very much focused on the technology solutions and not so much the business. A lot of that has to do with how the business structure is set up. So banking CIOs, for example, do not get into the business of interest rates or how to run the banks. They're really focused on making sure the system's running. Healthcare CIOs are pairing process improvement with technology adoption.

Which means we're involved in the business, whether that is revenue cycle, logistics of supply chain, or the clinical side--quality and safety and process improvement.

So healthcare CIOs are involved in things that are not traditional in other industries. Now that doesn't mean you don't still take care of the technology and make sure the trains run on time and that the phone works when you pick it up. But those things are behind the scenes, now. Five years ago, putting wireless networks in place was revolutionary. Today if you walked into a hospital and there wasn't free wireless you'd think you were in the dark ages.

Core competencies have changed--so little of it is technology orientation. It really is about providing a vision and a strategy, not just for technology but for the adoption and the outcomes of the technology. Leading through change: The value of process improvement and outcomes; building good teams; being a leader; transformational processes and relationship management.

FHIT: CHIME offers leadership training to its members: What are the challenges to teaching IT folks that next tier of leadership issues, such as change management?

Branzell: At the end of almost every one of our boot camps, one attendee says "I have no desire to be a CIO." And part of that is the realization that they're really comfortable at the peak of their technology skill set and don't want to learn that next skill step or go back and get a master's degree in business administration or health administration.

The number one skill is relationship management. It is amazing to me how people don't understand all the inner workings of the ecosystem in the health environment and how physicians interact with nurses who interact with other caregivers who interact with supply chain and how people think.

Understanding other people's perspectives and what their leadership style is--they have no clue. Even to the point of walking in other people's shoes for a day. Most have never left the dark basements of their hospitals--never mind spending a day with a nurse on the floor or a doctor in the OR.

After a day of rounds in the OR, I walk out saying I never want to go in there again, but I have to support them as best I can.

If you work in healthcare--I don't care who you are--you're part of the care process. 

Editor's note: This article has been edited for length and clarity. Look for part 2 of my interview with Branzell in an upcoming issue of FierceHealthIT. 

What do you think? Has the role of the CIO changed over the past five years? In what ways? Share your comments below. - Gienna (@Gienna)

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