Techies no more: Today CIOs are essential leaders in healthcare

Phoenix Children's Hospital CIO David Higginson says his peers have moved far past the era of hiding in the basement taking care of the computers.
By Beth Jones Sanborn
02:42 PM
Healthcare CIO leadership

LAS VEGAS – When Phoenix Children’s Chief Information Officer David Higginson looks at the CIO of today, he sees a far different skill set emerge than in decades past. 

“The idea that you have to be very socially adept, bold in leadership, these are not the features and skills we were asked for when we were first in the basement years .. taking care of the computers.”

In the 1980s, he said, they were the ones asked to put in the networks, to put the wireless networks in, and they wanted a desktop computer at everyone’s desk and to really roll out those office applications like email, Excel, Word and all those things the finance department was using.

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Fast forward to the 2000s, when the work became much more focused on EHRs

“So many of us were given a $100 billion budget, two years and a bunch of staff and had to go figure out putting the EMR in place. For 10 to 15 years rolled out system after system, many of them clinical but also financial systems as well. That work is predominantly done at this point. Meaningful use dollars are over for the most part and we’ve rolled out our EMRs. We’ve rolled out our big systems.”

Higginson said when he thinks about rolling out those systems, there were CIOs that really paid attention to what was going on during their EMR rollouts. They didn’t just take the vendor recommendations. They actually understood what happened in the department, what the workflow was, and had a good understanding of how their organizations worked.

Today they are being asked more and more to do process improvement: going into an area and actually redefining the workflow and changing how things work. The CIOs that really learned their systems and operations are at an advantage, especially when it comes to advising leadership. 

Also, thanks to merger and acquisition activity, the role has continued to evolve into something he calls the corporate CIO. “You have to be excited about process improvement. You have to really want to understand how the organization works and change over,” he said, 

“A CIO at the hospital level is really becoming a CTO and really making technology work. It’s going to be an interesting transition to see a corporate CIO stay connected and keep up with what’s going on at the hospital levels, understanding the differences of that hospital, understanding the nuances of that hospital and still make effective decisions.”

Higginson also said he relies on his strong partnership with his CMIO. That role has seen an evolution as well. When he started, the CMIO was “the doctor who liked computers the most” and that worked for a while. But the second-generation CMIO doesn’t really practice anymore but is completely dedicated to IT and really is that glue that brings together physicians and what their needs are and then interacts with everyone from IT. 

Since they are now decision makers and thought leaders, more than in years past, Higginson said they need to figure out how to get more out of IT and spend less on healthcare. 

“We have to do something to lower the cost of healthcare and IT is a big part of that. We‘ve been spending millions on EMRs and extra systems to add onto it and I think we’ve not been getting much value. This 20-year cycle of investment we have to finally get something out of it that improves patient safety, patient quality and lowers our costs. I don’t think we can sustain it any longer.”

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Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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