CHIME/HIMSS CIO of the Year Marc Probst, on the Present and the Future

Jan. 31, 2020
Marc Probst, vice president and CIO of Intermountain Healthcare, who has just been named CIO of the Year by CHIME and HIMSS, shares his perspectives on the present and the future of healthcare IT leadership

On January 30, Marc Probst, vice president and CIO of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare, was recognized by two leading industry associations—the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) and the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)—as the 2019 John E. Gall Jr. CIO of the Year.

The award is given annually to a CIO who has shown significant leadership and commitment to the healthcare industry during his or her career. The recipient is selected jointly by the boards of CHIME and HIMSS. Last year’s winner was Ed Kopetsky, CIO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Children’s Health.

According to CHIME and HIMSS officials, for more than 30 years, Probst has been at the forefront of change in the healthcare IT industry. “First as a partner with two large professional service organizations and later as CIO at Intermountain Healthcare, he has inspired those around him to think strategically and act boldly to improve health and care.”

Officials pointed out that when the federal government wanted a thought leader to help establish a policy framework, they selected Probst in 2009 to serve on the Federal Health IT Policy Committee, which helped develop health IT policies for the government. And when CHIME was poised for transformation and growth, the association’s members tuned to Probst to provide the vision and guidance. Indeed, Probst now serves on the CHIME Innovation Advisory Board. He previously served as chair of the CHIME Board of Trustees in 2016, chair of the CHIME Foundation Board in 2017 and chair of CHIME’s Public Policy Steering Committee in 2017.

CHIME President and CEO Russell Branzell said in a statement, “Marc has contributed to our community in countless ways. He has been instrumental in CHIME’s growth, domestically and internationally. Marc taught at our very first program in India and continues to be an ambassador for CHIME around the world. He piloted our first innovation initiative and helped make Intermountain the home for CHIME Innovation. The list goes on and on, and he has done this all while running a spectacular digital enterprise at Intermountain.”

And HIMSS President and CEO Hal Wolf added, “Marc has been a transformation leader blazing the trail in advancing technology to improve health and care. His work exemplifies what it means to be a changemaker – an innovator who rigorously challenges the status quo and empowers others to follow suit in the journey to providing better health for everyone, everywhere.”

Probst, 61, has, spent 32 years in healthcare IT. Shortly after the announcement was made, Probst spoke with Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding the present moment in healthcare and healthcare IT, and his perspectives on our future. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Congratulations on receiving this award! How does it feel to receive this honor?

It’s a tremendous honor. I do believe there an awful lot of people who are deserving of recognition, and of this recognition. And like everyone else will, it’s less me than the organization I lead, but I’m honored to lead it.

It seems as though we’re at some kind of inflection point right now for CIOs as a collective group. We’ve got the purchasers and payers of healthcare demanding a fundamental set of changes in terms of provider organizations proving their value. Historically, there had been a somewhat “custodial” aspect to healthcare administration, including to healthcare IT management; but that’s no longer the case, as CIOs are being asked to leverage technology to help their organizations transform themselves in the emerging value-based environment. Would you agree?

Yes, I totally agree about this being an inflection point. And I actually think that there are two really important roles that the leaders in organizations are going to have to play; and in most organizations, they’re probably two different people. And depending on the organization, it will depend who it will be. One will be that shift towards the strategic. We’re going to be moving from these heavy, code-based platforms, to new, more agile ones. But it’s going to take years to make that shift, and integration with operations and workflow, and the things that organizations will need to do to get there. Equally important will be the role of the operational expert in technology. No one’s going to be OK with the systems not being up all the time. We’ll have to do it at speeds that have never been required before. And we have to do it at a cost that continues to go down. We can’t continue to be as big a drain on the finances of our organizations; we’ve got to be able to shift money back into our organizations. So I think there will be a bifurcation of roles.

Does that mean that most current CIOs will oversee non-clinical operations and issues, leaving clinical IT operations and issues to clinician executives?

I could see where some clinicians will become CIOs. But equally, the new CIO might be someone deeply involved at Google or Amazon or Microsoft; I don’t think it’s unique to clinicians; it’s more unique to understanding the platforms. And it will require an understanding of how we build and use systems. So there will be physicians who will take on that role, but also some non-clinicians. And the legacy CIOs in healthcare like me, who’ve been in it for 30-plus years now—that core technical kill set is not going to be as valued as it once was. Now, I’ll say the same thing about legacy CMIOs and others as well; I think there’s going to be a fairly big shift in the composition of who will be at CHIME. We still have a purpose. But it will have to change and be more than just a tweak.

Are you partly referring to the emerging world of flexible APIs?

Yes, flexible APIs, new development tools and technologies, and AI, which is getting to be a trite word; but it’s all the new things that new platforms will allow us to do, and which are structurally just difficult to do with Cerner and Epic. People left PeopleSoft to create Workday, in ERP world. It’ll be like that.

Per what I had said a moment ago, we can no longer be content with a custodial approach to healthcare IT administration, correct? CIOs will have to become to some extent enterprising or entrepreneurial, in terms of seeking out solutions that are transformative?

I would agree, absolutely. You mentioned entrepreneurialism. And in a few shops like Intermountain and Mayo, we do a lot of technology innovation. Meanwhile, as an industry overall, it isn’t going to be our traditional large vendors, though they’ll have their part to paly. But it will involve really creative thinking based on new platforms. At the end of the day, all the data will be in these modern architectures in standardized platforms, so we’ll see a lot of entrepreneurialism, and we’ll figure out how that will work. And it’s not going to be as it is today. Look at hardware: everything was once on big, clunky mainframes. Now, everything is on mobile devices and lighter servers. And in our industry, bully for us, we’re only 15 years behind other industries! [laughs]

By implication, then, we’ll need to be drawing on people with certain skill sets, such as data analytics, from other industries, correct?

Absolutely, I think so.

What do CIOs need to do as professionals, to prepare for the new world?

This will be controversial—but I think they have to pick their “major.” Will they choose a highly technical mastery track? Or understanding emerging technologies and operations and how to marry those two things? There is a very narrow bandwidth to manage those two things, but I think you need to look at what your skills are, and pick your track.

What would you like CHIME to do in the next few years, per professional development of CIOs?

If we’re going to develop the leaders of the future, start focusing the development capabilities for future CIOs around those two tracks. Let me start by saying that I love CHIME, and I think CHIME is hugely valuable. But we need to go from, these are the kinds of things we need to work on, to, how are you doing as a CIO? What are the tactics you’re doing to employ, to lower the cost of healthcare? To harden your systems for security? To be clear, I think what they provide is hugely valuable.

In your 32 years in healthcare IT, have there been any surprises for you in your professional roles?

It definitely has been surprising. Early on, CIOs were essentially glorified IT directors. And then they turned into much more business-oriented people, dealing with vendors and partners. But the hockey stick has been how much is being asked by the CIOs to do, and how much responsibility is involved. It’s kind of exhausting, actually. And this shift to the gig economy: people are moving from job to job much more quickly. That’s adding costs and adding much ore responsibility now. It does feel like a career on steroids. And people in IT want a lot more money now.

I’ve been at Intermountain a little over 16 years. I am actually retiring in July. And it’s been amazing. Intermountain Healthcare is one of the most unique and wonderful organizations I could ever have been a part of. I came out of consulting, and thought I’d be there two or there years, kind of get a qualification, and go back into consulting, because I loved consulting. But it’s been wonderful here. The people are amazing, work incredibly hard and are very bright. I’ve achieved very little; they’ve achieved so much.

I there anything that you’d like to add?

I’d just like to emphasize what an honor it’s been to be in this industry. Being in a mission-driven industry like healthcare is so fulfilling; it’s been a great honor to work in this industry.

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