Creating Your Mission in Health IT Can Lead to Unanticipated Consequences

By Chad Johnson
08:22 AM

The title sounds all sunshine and daffodils, doesn’t it? Create your mission in health IT, how cute. But let’s deal with reality: very few people in health IT have the ability to introduce the sunny concept of a mission into their work lives.

First, what exactly is a health IT mission? That largely depends on your role. Take an interface analyst or the CIO of health system for example. A likely mission would be, “Make my organization the most connected and interoperable healthcare organization in the region.” More sunshine and daffodils, you say? Not necessarily.

Defining huge, career-defining goals gives you an important cause. It makes your job bigger than the small, perhaps mundane and easily achievable tasks you fill a majority of your time completing. However, according to author Cal Newport, creating a career mission is something that’s possible only after you have the work experience, knowledge and reputation — “career capital” as he calls it — to provide you with the proper insight to choose a mission that aligns with the possibilities afforded by your skillset.

According to Newport in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” there are requirements prior to developing a successful career mission:

“You can’t skip straight into a mission without first developing mastery in your field. …The best ideas for mission are found in the adjacent possible and the region just beyond the current cutting edge. To encounter these ideas, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge, which, in turn, requires expertise. To try to devise a mission when you’re new to a field and lacking any career capital is a venture bound for failure.

“Once you identify a specific mission, however, you’re still tasked with launching specific projects to make it succeed. An effective strategy for accomplishing this task is to try small steps that generate concrete feedback, ‘little bets,’ and then use this feedback, be it good or bad, to help figure out what to try next. This systematic exploration might help you find a way forward that you might not otherwise have noticed.”

Newport’s views on mission, in my opinion, are particularly applicable with health IT because the field also meets the basic economic concept of supply and demand. Health IT skills and experience are rare and overall unique in information technology. There are few qualified candidates for open positions because one can claim to be experienced in health IT only after years of specialized on-the-job training and time spent learning the important details. Once health IT professionals have real-world experience, they are in a unique position of career control that allows them to create a remarkable mission that benefits patients and the overall healthcare community.

Is defining a health IT mission crucial to success? Not necessarily, but it may give more meaning to those seemingly innocuous tasks you check off your scope of work daily, weekly and monthly. It could even be argued that you will arrive at the destination regardless of defining it as a mission in advance, thanks to Meaningful Use requirements. I would counter that defining the mission in advance will speed up the process by forcing you to stay on track and say ‘No’ to tasks that may detract from your defined goal.

In Interoperability From The Ground Up I wrote about Doug Fridsma’s analogy that likened health IT interoperabilty to building a city as opposed to constructing a building. He wrote in Health IT as an Ultra Large-Scale System, “While a blueprint with detailed floor plans of plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling systems makes sense for a single building, it doesn’t work if you try to do the same thing for an entire city.”

That’s where the little bets Newport described in his quote above comes into play when striving to meet health data interoperability goals. The small steps you take on the way toward your mission provide value feedback as you build the interoperable city.

For example, you begin your first small bet by interfacing the health information system (HIS) with the lab information system (LIS). You then step back and evaluate what worked well and what needs to be improved.

You move to your next small step with an enhanced approach that will help you build, test and implement outbound sender/receiver interfaces to an external radiology clinic. After completion, you again regroup and revise plans and strategies for external health data exchange that carry over to your next project of connecting to a regional HIE.

Each step in the process is more difficult than the last, but your skills have increased along the way and you will have more confidence from creating the building blocks you laid as you build the “most connected and interoperable organization in the region.”

Making and learning from these little bets as you build a modern healthcare system will provide you with rare and valuable skills and knowledge that can be leveraged to set and accomplish even more ambitious career missions. But, more importantly, you will have built the framework for a connected health IT ecosystem that can make physicians and other members of the caregiving team work more efficiently. They will have at their disposal more information about patients and about best practices that will allow them to provide better care, which has always been the most important mission of our healthcare system.