A Strong Message from Two HIT Leaders on Leadership and Strategy and What Lies Ahead

Aug. 21, 2016
Two presenters at the Health IT Summit in Seattle last week, coming at the subject from different vantage points, ended up reinforcing the same exceptionally important points about healthcare strategy and leadership in the current operating environment

Two presenters at the Health IT Summit in Seattle last week, coming at the subject from different vantage points, ended up reinforcing the same exceptionally important points about healthcare strategy and leadership in the current operating environment—and those points had nothing to do with the technology per se.

Early on Wednesday, Suzanne Anderson, who on June 1 was named president of the Virginia Mason Health System, a pioneering Seattle patient care organization, talked about some of the lessons she’s learned in her journey as a healthcare executive; and later on in the day, Sajid Ahmed, the chief information and innovation officer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles Healthcare Corporation, shared important points from the narrative of the shuttering of the old MLK Medical Center in South Central Los Angeles and the rebirth of the organization as the new MLK Los Angeles Healthcare Corporation, in a brand-new facility and with a new staff.

As I noted in my report last week, Anderson spoke on the topic, “A Leadership Journey: Different Paths to Different Levels.” “There are two different ways people get into senior leadership positions,” Anderson noted. “One is that you take on a variety of positions and eventually are promoted. The other way is, in the IT world, you work your way up in a very technical way, through technical positions. I was CIO before president,” she said. “But am not technical.” Instead, gradually over time, having done implementational IT consulting, she eventually was named CIO at Virginia Mason, and then CFO, and ultimately, several weeks ago, president. As Anderson emphasized, it was her strategic background and experience that led VMHS chairman and CEO Gary Kaplan, M.D. to bring her into the president role in the organization.

Suzanne Anderson speaking at iHT2-Seattle

What Anderson wanted her iHT2 audience to understand was this: “What gets you to a middle management role in the IT world is not what gets you to senior management overall; it’s necessary but not sufficient,” she said. “I have conversations every day with leaders who are no longer middle management, but not quite senior management. And I say, you do a great technical job; a great job getting your teams aligned, and working out budgetary issues, etc. But what I really need for you to do in this case is to think about the organization as a whole… and for you to really understand those more general leadership competencies. Unfortunately in IT, we’re such a technical field that this isn’t necessarily what people have been educated on, or what you’ve worked on in your career, because you’ve been rewarded for layers of technical competence,” she said. Those are the skill sets that are needed now at senior levels of patient care organizations, including among CIOs.

Meanwhile, Sajid Ahmed’s sharing of the story of how the new Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles Healthcare Corporation came together, reinforced what Anderson had said, from a different angle. Ahmed, who did evolve professionally through technical IT positions, as well as through executive positions on both the provider and health plan sides of healthcare, focused on the strategic leadership requirements behind the recreation of a once-troubled hospital into a brand-new facility and patient care organization.

Yes, there were numerous technology aspects of the preparation for the opening of the new MLK facility in South Central Los Angeles, Ahmed told his audience. For one thing, he noted, “We went live with Cerner—55 modules simultaneously, and at the same time that we were hiring brand-new physicians and nurses.” What’s more, of the 1,000 employees hired so far, fully 300 were hired in a three-month time period prior to the new facility’s opening.

But when it came down to it, the technological issues involved in moving with alacrity to prepare the opening of the new hospital paled in comparison to the process, strategic, and mission concerns involved, Ahmed told iHT2-Seattle attendees.  Was it difficult to prepare for the opening of the new hospital? Absolutely, Ahmed told his audience. “For six months, I held meetings from 6 AM until 2 in the morning. Everyone was on a different page at first. And what came out of all this was that if we didn’t do this together, we’re all going down together. And I put it out there,” he said; “I told people, you’re going to be at the top of the LA Times story.”

The reality, Ahmed told the audience, is that innovation can only emerge out of a particular kind of culture. “I’m a big fan of innovation,” he told his audience. “But I wanted to use that as a drive to create a culture of innovation. And part of it is not just creating new things and devices, but how to leverage processes, and improve things, especially culture.”  And, he added, “Trust and communication are the hardest things to do, the hardest things to build among people. Do everything you can to maintain them; that’s been part of our success. It’s not the technology’s ability to work, but the people’s ability to work the technology,” he emphasized. “Really,” he said, “it isn’t about the technology. I’m a technologist, I love technology; I launch technology initiatives. But if the doctors, nurses, and others, don’t like it, it’s not going to work.”

Sajid Ahmed speaking at iHT2-Seattle

All of this speaks so strongly to the moment that our industry is in right now, as policy, particularly federal policy, is driving everything forward. From the recent announcements of the new mandatory cardiac care bundle in 98 markets, to the looming implementation of the new MACRA/MIPS final rule, to the announcement of the readmissions penalties, to the eventual resolution of the issues around the remaining elements of Stage 2 meaningful use requirements and the anticipated Stage 3 of MU, and beyond, policy, especially reimbursement-related policy, is pushing the entire U.S. healthcare system forward.

And in that kind of environment, CIOs and other senior healthcare IT leaders with only technical backgrounds and skills, are finding it to be hard sledding. That is not to say that technical skills should be seen as lacking in value; on the contrary, they remain extremely important, as the purchasing decisions alone, when it comes to the big clinical and other information systems that hospitals, medical groups, and health systems are buying, are more and more expensive and comprehensive. And it will be very important, of course, to have enough of a technical understanding of the current data security threats to ensure that numerous IT security elements are put into place.

But the leadership and strategic skill sets needed from CIOs in the next few years will honestly be preeminent, as patient care organizations will need to move into hyper-drive in order to move forward successfully into the emerging policy and operating environment. And no amount of technical skill will compensate for a lack of leadership ability and strategic acumen, which will be so terribly needed in the coming months and few years, as U.S. healthcare revolutionizes itself.

So it was really good to hear from Suzanne Anderson and Sajid Ahmed last week, and to get the really big-picture overview on these issues. And we will need more reminders like theirs going into the future, as the foundations are laid for the next phase of the evolution of the U.S. healthcare system, across what inevitably will be a challenging period of transition.

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