How Virginia Mason Health System’s CIO is using technology to tackle the gaps in care

Ellen Wiegand, vice president and chief information officer at Virginia Mason Health System, talks about the potential of AI, robotics and advice to early career professionals.
Ellen Wiegand, vice president and chief information officer at Virginia Mason Health System.

Ellen Wiegand, vice president, chief information officer at Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle WA, was always interested in healthcare, but it wasn’t until a college career fair that she stumbled upon the health IT industry. She’s been in the field ever since, rising to senior executive roles at large health systems. 

She answered questions for Women in Health IT on how she pinpoints the gaps where technology could fill, her take on the latest technology and advice to early career professionals interested in the space. 

Q. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey into your role as VP and CIO of Virginia Mason Medical Center?

A. Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. As a pre-med undergrad student, I discovered working with information systems was a better fit for me. I was fortunate to meet a recruiter from a health care IT software company at my college career fair, and realized I could still work in health care and contribute in other ways. I’ve had several roles with various companies, starting as a clinical information systems analyst and integration architect for a software vendor, managing projects for consulting company, and leading teams for healthcare provider organizations. 

I joined Virginia Mason in 2009 as our director of clinical information systems. I had been doing some consulting work in Seattle, and kept hearing about Virginia Mason and the great work they were doing. When I saw the CIS director position open up, I knew I had to go for it. I spent a couple years in that role leading our CIS program. This position taught me a lot about leadership and partnering with clinical operations to move initiatives forward. It also became clear how integrated clinical information systems are with all our other systems. This led to my promotion to senior director of enterprise applications, and then to chief information officer a few years later. As CIO, I get to work with teams across the entire health system to implement and support technology with the ultimate goal of improving patient care and our team members’ experience. This is by far the most rewarding job I’ve had, and one in which I am constantly learning.

Q. How do you go about looking for those technology gaps to fix? Do you talk to care teams? Admins?

A. In health care, you don’t have to look too hard to find gaps technology could potentially fill. Our challenge is in deciding which ones to address and finding the best solutions to meet our business needs. 

I spend a lot time talking with our clinical and administrative teams to identify and prioritize technology needs. We have an annual goal-planning process at Virginia Mason which helps define the major projects we’ll take on each year. As an organization, we use the Virginia Mason Production System, our organization’s innovative management method, to align our priorities, with technology being one tool to help us meet organizational goals. 

We also use some less formal means to identify technology needs. For example, we round with our clinical teams in their workplace, to see firsthand how the technology (i.e., workstations, printers, ERH, business systems) they have is working for them. We’ve had some great ideas suggested and implemented as a result of these rounds. Often the small changes that result from rounding have the biggest, most immediate impact on our care teams.

Q. What technology are you most excited about coming up?

A. Certainly, AI and robotic process automation offer a lot of potential. We’ve begun to explore some very basic forms of this technology to help automate routine tasks and free up our people’s time to do more complex, higher value work. In reality, though, the technologies I get most excited about are the ones we can implement now and make a real difference for our patients and care teams. We’re currently working on a CRM implementation, focusing on patient outreach. I think the use of CRM in health care holds tremendous promise as we think about patients as health care consumers and manage patient interactions with our health system in a more coordinated way. We’ve been able to integrate this platform with our EHR, our MyVirginiaMason patient portal and other enterprise systems, thanks to newer integration tools such as APIs and FHIR. We’ve spent the last several years building the foundation for these tools, and we’re now starting to see great progress in applying them to meet our business and patient care needs.

In the last 10 years what do you think have been the biggest challenges in implementing technology initiatives?

Like many health care systems, Virginia Mason has accomplished much in the past decade. Many providers and IT vendors have spent the better part of the last 10 years implementing technology, particularly electronic health records, in compliance with government and regulatory requirements. At Virginia Mason, we’ve built clinical decision support into the EHR to support safer care, and our patients now have direct electronic access to their record. In many cases, though, this has required some very heavy lifting for the information technology team, leaving fewer resources available for more innovative development. There is pent up demand for simple, intuitive solutions that we can use as technology enablers for workflow and productivity. The reality is our expectations of technology, and our patients’ expectations, are growing faster than proven tools can be delivered. We all want workplace technology to be as easy to use as the phone in your pocket. 

Q. How do you get stakeholders onboard with your initiative? 

A. Change management can be one of the most challenging aspects of any IT initiative. At Virginia Mason, we have a mantra for our IT projects - Patient Focused, Clinically Driven, IT Supported. This reminds us to focus on doing what is best for our patients, in partnership with our care teams, in a sustainable way. If we select and implement systems using this framework, it is becomes easier to engage all our stakeholders, including leaders, front line staff and patients. 

You have to start with a compelling reason for change. The urgency has to be there, not just for you, but for all your stakeholders. One way to do this is through data. Being transparent with defects and error rates helps everyone understand why we are working on a particular project or initiative. For instance, we’ve been focused on system performance this year. We were hearing anecdotal reports about slowness in our EHR. Once we started measuring our EHR performance through direct observation and system reporting, and comparing our performance to benchmarks, the case for change was clear. We formed a Performance Task Force to focus on improving performance in the EHR. Sharing the data highlighting our results, as well as areas that still need improvement, has allowed us to maintain momentum on this important project.

Q. What is your advice to early career professionals, particularly women, interested in pursuing health IT roles?

A. Go for it! It is a great time to be in health care IT, and we need your new ideas. There are numerous technology companies and provider organizations doing some really innovative things. If you see a project or role that sounds interesting, apply. Let them know you are interested and what you can contribute. I think too many women wait for the perfect job to be offered at the perfect time, and that rarely happens. Don’t sell yourself short. You may not get the result you want every time, but each experience will make you better and open doors in the future.

 

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