Empowering Health IT Leadership

In a healthcare environment characterized by rapid fluctuation, trying to run an information technology (IT) department is often like trying to hit a moving target. Compliance with government regulations such as Meaningful Use, the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), 5010 and ICD-10 were only the start. The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) now looms on the near horizon as well.

Industry consolidation through mergers, acquisitions and alignments can further complicate matters for IT leadership. Decisions made based on the needs of a single hospital, faculty group or physician practice, for example, can become obsolete overnight as an organization’s size, priorities and competitive landscape change.

To truly thrive in such a fast-paced atmosphere, IT leaders must design and manage programs capable of supporting an organization’s shifting clinical and financial goals. This is possible with strategic planning that incorporates three distinct factors: effective governance; a culture of optimism and transparency; and business acumen paired with technical know-how.

Supportive Governance

Access to proper funding and tools are a key ingredient in the success of any IT endeavor. Yet IT accomplishments are not dependent just on IT resources. Organizational governance often adds another challenge to the mix.

In the midst of quickly changing priorities, it can be difficult for C-suite leaders to clearly communicate goals and future requirements in a timely manner. That is why IT leaders must be part of the strategic planning and decision-making process. Rather than an organizational structure in which IT merely carries out the decisions determined by executive leadership, organizations should foster a more collaborative approach where IT leaders are engaged in corporate strategy & planning.

From an IT perspective, that means leaders can no longer concentrate solely on systems & infrastructure. They must broaden their focus to ensure that the technology selected aligns with both the short- and long-term goals defined by C-suite executives. Close relationships with operational counterparts is crucial.

A cross-functional leadership team- the CMO, CMIO, CFO and IT leadership, for example – must lead any major IT project. All parties must have a voice early in the process. In fact, collaboration should begin even before budgets are determined. When two hospital clients of ours merged several years ago, for instance, part of the merger deal itself included allocating a budget to deploy a unified electronic health record (EHR) in all of the organization’s facilities.

Including IT as a part of the larger decision-making process enables swifter resolution and organizational nimbleness. IT leaders can help the C-suite prioritize projects within their resource and budget boundaries. Giving all parties a seat at the table allows organizations to quickly determine the specific IT resources necessary to sustain their strategic objectives.

Culture of Optimism & Transparency

The pace of change in healthcare is only increasing and with each new regulatory mandate or IT project providers and staff need education and training. Whether it’s instruction on the latest documentation requirements or an IT upgrade, staff and providers often feel bogged down by so-called “change fatigue.” How many times are staff heard exclaiming, “Not another change! What will they throw at us next?”

Working in conjunction with other executives, however, IT leadership can take a lead role in combatting resistance and developing a culture of enthusiasm and optimism. The key is to be transparent. Resist the urge to explain new workflows with a terse statement such as, “It’s a government regulation; we have no choice.” Instead, take the time to educate staff about what’s driving the change. Make sure to focus discussions on all of the intended benefits – even if they will not occur immediately.

SEE ALSO: Changing Role of Healthcare CIOs

IT leaders might want to start staff education and training efforts within their organization’s integrated leadership councils. A working council that includes staff from the patient access, clinical quality and revenue cycle departments, for example, might be the first to undergo training. They can help define any standards the organization hopes to realize through the change. Then, these leaders can promote further conversations throughout the staff, communicating goals and benefits and generating positive mindsets through integrated implementation work groups.

Although it may sound simplistic, fostering an optimistic outlook and “can-do” attitude is important to counteract the very real effects of change fatigue. The strongest health IT leaders tend to be those with the vision to see the benefits of change, the capacity to excite and motivate others to pursue the possibilities, and the talent to map a plan to achieve them.

Business Acumen

The most effective health IT leaders are also those who keep an ear to the ground when it comes to business activity, legislation and regulation – whether local, national or even international. Today, it is not enough to possess IT skill alone; IT leaders should demonstrate as much understanding of the local and national business landscape as well as their understanding of technology trends. This kind of savvy is one way to ensure that an organization is not caught unaware of impactful business activity, but can instead plan in anticipation.

A diverse skillset can be helpful in other regards as well. Physician CIOs, for instance, are in demand because they can speak from a position of credibility with physicians. This multifaceted understanding lends an increased degree of credibility to those who must implement a technology, and to those who must use it.

The ability to accurately assess and prioritize IT needs within a limited budget is another proficiency critical for IT leaders to possess. While this is an undertaking some IT leaders prefer to retain exclusively, others may seek the partnership and perspective of third party consultants to help ensure their decisions reflect a broader and unbiased view. In addition, increasing numbers of IT leaders are leveraging a project management office (PMO) to help ensure IT projects stay on time and on budget.

PMOs may be structured at the organizational level, the departmental level, or within a certain functional area – such as a revenue cycle PMO. Their goal is to help increase operational efficiency by standardizing project management practices and by helping manage the overall IT project portfolio.

In organizations with a centralized PMO, IT leaders may be able to “borrow” management staff as needed for specific IT projects. In other instances, IT leaders may be able to turn to a PMO for the training and best practices they need to manage their projects.

Leading Edge of Healthcare

Today, more than ever, a healthcare organization’s overall success hinges on hiring, cultivating and supporting the right IT leadership. One step is to encourage not just technical expertise, but a good business sense as well. Inviting IT leaders to actively participate in executive decision-making can further help organizations pivot and plan more effectively as the landscape around them changes.

Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking, either. Despite all the moving pieces within any healthcare organization, IT leaders must always keep sight of the organization’s ultimate operational, financial and clinical goals. By enthusiastically sharing not only a strategic long-term vision, but also the steps needed to accomplish it, IT leaders have a tremendous opportunity to help drive the real mission of healthcare.

Brad Boyd is president at Culbert Healthcare Solutions.

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