One-on-One with SLVR Medical Center CIO Spencer Hamons

June 24, 2011
San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center (SLVRMC) — located in South Central Colorado — is an 85-bed facility, operating a level III trauma center,

San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center (SLVRMC) — located in South Central Colorado — is an 85-bed facility, operating a level III trauma center, with valley-wide ambulance service. The organization is the largest medical facility in the valley, and works closely with two large clinics; one dedicated to specialists and the other to family practice and outreach. Recently, HCI I had a chance to talk with CIO Spencer Hamons about what it takes to be an effective IT leader.

AG: You mentioned a few things the last time we talked in late 2006 — you had come on fairly recently to your position, and you had revitalized a relationship with McKesson, done some work with Citrix, had acquired a physician services clinic, etc. Update me on where things stand today.

SH: Of course, we spent a lot of time on the technical aspect of doing the integration with our physicians clinic. Around here, it’s not quite as simple as it would be in a larger metropolitan area. Even things that people take for granted, like MPLS and having high speed Internet connectivity from building to building and that type of stuff is a challenge here in the rural environment. Here, just to get a T1 was $500/month. And one half meg of bandwidth to support 70 employees just isn't enough. We’ve had to make creative partnerships with our local folks around here.

One of the bridges that we were able to come up with is using a small cable provider to lease some fiber. In a large metropolitan area, you can do that fairly cheaply, but here it’s $2,000/month to pull off a 100 meg fiber connection. We had to work with those guys in order to get their infrastructure to a level of security and stability that would suit our needs. We've kind of stepped it out of the healthcare environment and we've worked with telecommunications and cable TV folks and all that, trying to come up with new and efficient ways to do things that normally just aren’t available to us here.

When it comes to the physicians clinic, one of the things that became apparent to us very quickly was, as we changed some of the processes, we were able to be much more efficient at the clinic, but in order to do that, we had to make some changes on the hospital side. So we saw how a lot of process management and process improvement rolled together, and IT took a leadership role on that about how do we manage these processes, really analyze them and then figure out how can we make changes. Sometimes they're technical changes, sometimes it’s just the way people do things.

For the first 18 or so months I was here, we focused on technology. But now we have really shifted in my department. We’re still a very technologically savvy department, but we have really begun focusing on the interpersonal relationships with the department, with the people who are doing the processes and doing a lot of process analysis.

AG: Tell me more about that, about the new skills that are required to be effective in your role today.

SH: It’s been talked about pretty extensively in all of the trade magazines and everything for the last few years about how important it is for IT departments to understand the business. When you talk about IT in leadership roles, talking about the CIO, director of IT management, it has been said a lot that we need to do a better job of hiring people who have the ability to sit down and communicate with others, and they're not just network geeks sitting behind the desk. You just can’t be that way anymore.

What I see that is really happening is that we’re passed the point where management has to understand the business. I've said it before, that we are bad in healthcare about promoting people to the level of incompetence. We take the best nurse and we make them the nurse manager. We take the best lab tech, and we put them running the lab. We take these folks that don’t have management skills, and we’re putting them into those positions. We've historically done that in healthcare. It typically fails.

Now we’re at the point that we’re saying just being the best lab tech, or in IT being the best desktop support tech, is not going to be enough if you cannot talk to people. If you can't have a conversation and draw the information out of people that you want, in order to get down to the root of the problem, and then communicate that to others so that they can fix it, you won’t be successful. At every level in my organization, whether it’s in nursing, whether it’s in environmental services, we’re having an expectation for that.

AG: Would you say it’s important to have a mix of the hardcore IT “geeks” and then the other people that can be more of a managerial level?

SH: I think it’s going to depend on the organization. At one of my previous jobs, we had 200 people in IT. When you have a 200-250 person IT staff, what you just said is absolutely the truth. You can pick and choose what positions that have those capabilities. But in smaller organizations, where your IT staff is maxed out at 18-20, I think you're going to have to be very picky about who you choose. When you're sitting and doing your interviews, you may have two folks that are very close together on the technical skills, and I think that you're going to have to hold out and try to hire the one that has the ability to sit down and talk with people.

I’ll give you a prime example. Right now, I have a network administrator who is probably the best network administrator I have ever had the opportunity to work with. This guy is just absolutely outstanding. One of his best attributes is the fact that he worked at Trinidad State Junior College, and he was an instructor. He knew how to sit down and really talk to people. I can't tell you how many folks out there would kill to have a network administrator that they could pull off of the IT desk and send them out to talk to doctors, nurses, managers, executives and feel confident in that. I can't tell you how many CIOs have said, ‘Golly, I wish I had a technical person who had the ability to do it.’

AG: It sounds like when you have a staff of 18-20 you can’t afford to have someone that just wants their head down behind the computer, no matter how good they are.

Click here for Part II

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