EXCLUSIVE: Russ Branzell, CHIME’s Incoming CEO, Speaks First to Healthcare Informatics

April 9, 2013
One day after the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CHIME named Russell P. Branzell its incoming chief executive officer, Branzell spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding his acceptance of the CHIME CEO position, and his aspirations for CHIME as an organization going forward.

One day after the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) named Russell P. Branzell its incoming chief executive officer (he starts at the organization on April 5), Branzell, who has been a senior executive in a variety of roles at the University of Colorado Health (formerly Poudre Valley Health System), Branzell spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding his acceptance of the CHIME CEO position, and his aspirations for CHIME as an organization going forward.

Branzell, 47, served in a number of sometimes-overlapping positions with Poudre Valley Health System, which became part of the University of Colorado Health in early 2012. He came to the organization in 2003 as vice president and CIO, and also served simultaneously as vice president-human resources from 2006 to 2009. In January 2011, he was named CEO of the Colorado Health Medical Group, and served simultaneously in that position and the health system CIO position until the summer of 2012. He will end his involvement with the University of Colorado Health System and Colorado Health Medical Group on April 5, the day he starts his tenure with CHIME. He will continue to live in Fort Collins, Colorado, with his family, and will commute to Ann Arbor and to Washington, D.C., as needed.

Branzell’s selection by CHIME’s board follows a three-month search that began in November. Over the course of his career, Branzell has received numerous industry awards, and has served on the CHIME board of trustees and on various committees within the organization. In July 2010, Branzell was honored with the CHIME State Advocacy Award, for his multi-faceted work in Colorado and nationwide, in helping to champion the launch of CHIME’s StateNet, an online CIO network intended to enhance communication among healthcare CIOs on state-level advocacy issues.

In announcing his appointment as CEO of CHIME on Feb. 12, CHIME board chairman George T. “Buddy” Hickman, executive vice president and CIO of Albany Medical Center said in a statement: “Following a comprehensive search, the Board is fortunate to have found someone of Russ’ competency and experience to guide our organization successfully into the future. As a respected IT executive who possesses deep industry knowledge, Russ will continue CHIME’s successful achievements and assure CHIME’s position as the association leading the national transformation of health IT.”

Below are excerpts from Mark Hagland’s industry-first interview with Russ Branzell.

What compelled you to accept this position?

As I looked through this, and looked through where I’ve come in my career and where I feel an overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility, it really is to the HIT community. I’ve done a lot of cool things in my career, but what’s most important to me really comes back to my commitment to the HIT community; and CHIME has always been a big part of that. I’ve always had a big place in my heart for CHIME, and CHIME activity has always been a passion for me. And so this just seemed like a perfect fit for me, and for my family.

Russell P. Branzell

Are you going to move to Michigan?

No, that is not the plan; the plan is to fly to Michigan, or to Washington, D.C., as needed. There isn’t a need for me to be in the office every day, but rather to work collaboratively with the staff and leaders to advance the agenda in the organization both nationally and indeed, now, internationally.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in the next few years, for CHIME?

Well, if you look at what CHIME is great at—and that is, to provide the best executive-level education for CIOs and other healthcare IT executives—CHIME is great at that, and will continue to do that, and to include those even outside the hospital and large medical group model—it will include organizations like nursing homes, SNFs [skilled nursing facilities], rehab facilities, regional extension centers, and health information exchanges. All those types of organizations are part of this ecosystem now, and are the types of organizations we need to reach, in addition to hospitals, medical groups, and health systems.

Obviously, we want to continue our public policy and advocacy role; and I would say that our role has been appropriately, reactive, with regard to meaningful use, the ICD-10 transition, and so on. But now we need to get on the proactive side of it, in shaping the policy agenda, whether at the local and state levels through our StateNet activity, or at the national level in Washington, D.C. We also want to grow new opportunities for services that could be offered by CHIME. We’re obviously not at liberty to discuss details yet, but the bottom line is that CHIME wants to grow, and to support its members even more broadly.

One of the things that happens is that as I listen to Buddy and Rich [Rich Correll, the current president and CEO of CHIME, who will now become chief operating officer] and so many others, I see a need to glue all the professional associations together, all of which have a role to play out there. And we believe we can’t influence the policy discussion, or on how HIT is being leveraged, unless we can gather together with those other associations. Just yesterday, as an example, we were in Washington, to comment on and discuss the patient safety components relative to HIT, and around concerns that exist at the federal level that HIT could actually create harm—and that’s a collaboration that needs to take place with ONC, and AHRQ [the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality], and other agencies. And we need to do things right on the front end in areas like that.

Obviously, there are a lot of current issues to continue to work on. Meaningful use is reaching its peak of acceleration, and the ICD-10 transition is being worked on, and there are so many initiatives around population health, and so on; and the role of the CIO is so critical in all this.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vendor partnering that is the other element of CHIME; the vendor organizations are members of CHIME and we want to make sure they’re part of our success. There are over 90 vendor organizations that are already a part of the CHIME Foundation, and there are obviously many firms that want to collaborate with us.

Where do you think your experiences and qualities will particularly fit well into the CEO position at CHIME?

I really believe in the team concept, and working with everyone on staff. Part of it is my relational leadership style; I enjoy building new and unique things, and want to build things collaboratively with others. And there’s an obligation in an organization like CHIME, that the reason you’re there is to serve. That’s true of healthcare in general—it’s to serve patients if you’re in patient care organizations; in this case, I have an overwhelming desire to serve the patient community, the provider community, the HIT community—and that includes you [in the media].

But it really is about positively influencing the discussion around policy and healthcare reform. We have an obligation to help our country, and the cost of healthcare could really cause damage to the economy. And I feel I have an obligation to help in that effort. And the other thing I think I bring to this is the deep relationships I have in the community, to help advance the mission of CHIME, which is to really serve our communities.

The other thing is that I think I have a pretty clear vision of what CHIME can do, not only to continue what we’re doing now, but to grow the vision. The board of CHIME has a desire to continue to grow CHIME, but also to grow and diversify its efforts to meet and expand its vision.

One concern that some in the HIT community might have has to do with the intensifying major-party partisanship in Congress and in the state legislatures. One example of that phenomenon is the letters that small groups of Republicans first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate, sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last fall, demanding changes in the meaningful use program. Are you concerned at all that rising levels of partisanship both in Washington and in the statehouses might impact healthcare IT-related advocacy work by CHIME and other associations?

I think when you see numbers with a lot of zeroes and commas in it, you’ll always see concern about the numbers involved; and I think those letters perhaps expressed some concern with the level of cost involved. It doesn’t mean that people didn’t want to spend any money on healthcare IT initiatives, but over how we’re spending our money in that area. But when you look at other industries like banking and airlines, the transformational processes have always been automation-led. So I think bipartisan support for HIT will continue, but we will need to show our outcomes and results.

Senator Daschle [former South Dakota Senator Thomas Daschle], at the BPC [Bipartisan Policy Center] meeting yesterday, said that we need to ensure that we’re making the proper investments at the right time and in the right ways, to get the proper outcomes. And that’s exactly what we’re out to do, to make sure that CIOs and healthcare IT leaders have the resources they need. And we have a big part of the community that is not in the large hospitals and medical groups, that we have to continue to serve. So I’m pretty optimistic going forward.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

From a big-picture perspective, this is a significant honor and privilege to serve the community, and I feel a significant deep and passionate obligation on my part to serve the community. And I want to make sure we do everything possible to serve the HIT community, the vendor community, and the healthcare community in general. HIT has moved into the mainstream in healthcare management; but we want to make sure we leverage the investments in IT to advance healthcare in general. And I want to make sure that CHIME continues to help us change the way we deliver healthcare and serve our communities, in a very short period of time.

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