Creating Healthcare Technology Teams: Jefferson Health’s Secret Sauce

June 11, 2019
Finding and retaining the right health IT talent has been full of challenges and opportunities for senior leaders at Jefferson Health

Healthcare jobs are continuing to take up more and more of the U.S. economy, and the industry has now become the nation’s largest source of careers. The impact of this trend on hospitals and health systems is that it’s become more important than perhaps ever before to not only find the right talent but also be able to retain them.

A key part of this transformation is reimagining healthcare delivery at its core by becoming more digitally-focused. In order to accomplish this, assembling skilled health IT professionals is paramount.  To this end, five years ago at the Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, an internal innovation team—the DICE (Digital Innovation and Consumer Experience) Group was formed, with the goal to design, develop, and implement value-driven and consumer-focused solutions that transform healthcare. The DICE Group works in partnership with students, patients, physicians, faculty, staff, industries, governments and the communities surrounding Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, according to its officials.

At the Mid-Atlantic Health IT Summit last week, sponsored by Healthcare Innovation, two senior executives from the health system—Neil Gomes, chief digital officer and senior vice president for technology innovation and consumer experience, and who leads the DICE Group, and Robert Neff, vice president, digital solution development at the DICE Group—spoke about how to successfully create internal healthcare technology teams and keep them together over time. Below are excerpts of that presentation.

Gomes: We have an equation for digital transformation, and also transformation of any kind. You need good people and great teams, and you need to make sure you hire the right kinds of people. It’s always the ‘who’ before the ‘what.’ You also want to spend equal time investing in the right platforms, as they are extremely valuable in bringing about change. You have to make the right decisions—not just from a technology perspective, but also from an ethos perspective. The companies you are working with need to support that platform and be great partners; you have to be sure the platforms you are picking are with good companies. Sometimes partners don’t bring you a platform, but rather people or ideas. We don’t see vendors as vendors; we see them as partners. We want to see that they have as much interest in this [work] as we do.

We started the [DICE Group] with two people, and we are close to 200 now. An investment from the organization has helped and we have shown value to them. So there is an all-around benefit. One of our 12 [underlying] principles is to follow the incentive. When you create solutions, many times if you are a good group you are focused on patients at the end of the value chain, but there’s a whole lot of people before that, too. And the incentive isn’t always money—maybe it’s making their jobs easier or saving them time.

Neff: We have a lot of challenges when it comes to hiring the right types of people. What millennials look for in a career are benefits, two-way loyalty, retirement investment options, the ability to prioritize family, and social impact. These elements are offered by healthcare provider organizations more than most other [employers], so that’s one of the things we promote when trying to bring people in.

How do we recruit? The traditional provider organizations are very good and have really strong recruiting departments who are good at finding doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. They have networks set up at schools and elsewhere, and know how to bring in talent.

But when you look at technology leaders and managers, IT staff and software developers, healthcare does not have great experience here. They don’t have relationships with recruiting organizations or with engineering schools, nor do they usually have the expertise in recruiting in this area. They also might not understand the difference in the type of technology staff that’s coming in. [At Jefferson Health], we break it down between operational (deployment, support, configuration, training); project-based work including updates and change management; implementations and interface builds; and then lastly, developers.

Where do you get this talent? Employee and peer/vendor referrals are the most important ways to get talent in. When you have an existing employee refer someone, they not only are vouching for this person but they also will be working with them. So we have had a lot of luck when our internal staff refers someone.

But you won’t always get a ton of referrals. So, recruiters are the next step and you need to find the right recruiting partners. I have two or three [of these partners], some of my peers have two or three, and there is overlap there. So they get to know you, and building the relationships are important. I text with my primary recruiting partner multiple times per day, talking about different candidates and openings that might be coming up, talking about people who are on the team, and those who are onboarding.

Also, use recruiters to your advantage to help you interview, screen, test and train. So, rely on your recruiters more than you might traditionally have. It’s not just about them passing a bunch of resumes over to you. A good recruiter will want to partner with you and get into [the trenches] with you.

Regarding interviews, it’s very challenging to look through resumes. Regardless of the resume, we start off with a quick phone screening. It sets you up to end the call quickly in less than five minutes if the person is a bad fit. Then, we give every person who interviews a skills test. This could involve asking them to write code or set up an interface,  and then we ask and answer questions while they are doing the test. We aim to create a real-world experience about what it would be like to work [here]. A cultural fit test is also included in every interview. We want to know why they want to work here, what their passions are, and what they do in their free time. The decision that is ultimately made is a team consensus.

Gomes: We also interview in groups; not just individually. When a person talks to you one-on-one versus when they are talking to an entire group, it’s easier to put on an “appearance.” But in real-life environments you need to work with a team of people, and it’s important to get them in that scenario from the onset.

Neff: How do you keep your team together? We ask employees if they enjoy what they’re working on, and what more they want to get out of this work. Employee retention is important and benefits include low training and ramp-up costs for new employees. And it also has a positive impact on team culture.

There is also nothing that we would ask our team to do that we wouldn’t do ourselves. An example of this is when our [senior executives] put on hoodies and went down to our opioids clinic to see what technology could help innovation in this area.

Gomes: Another example of [culture building] is when one of our design team members, who is from India, mentioned to me that five team members were going to India with her when she went for her cousin’s wedding. One woman who traveled to India with the group was only an employee here for six months and had never even left the state previously. This speaks to the type of environment you can create if you enable people to talk to each other, and encourage a shared and open atmosphere.

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