'At Stanford, it's a team sport': How Eric Yablonka is fostering innovation with Silicon Valley in his backyard

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Within healthcare, technology has a purpose: to improve patient care. At Stanford (Calif.) Health Care, CIO Eric Yablonka is focused on leveraging technology to improve the patient and clinician experience.

Most recently, the health system opened its Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. The new $2.1 billion hospital incorporates user experience ideas for Apple.

Specifically, the Stanford Hospital features robots that package prescriptions. Automated guided vehicles assist with laundry delivery and trash disposal. Sensors track staff and equipment to enhance inventory control and efficiency.

Physicians and nurses can leverage remote monitoring tools from a single location. The Stanford Hospital also plans to use two patient rooms to test a bedside computer-vision system.

Below, Mr. Yablonka discusses what it's like to work in Silicon Valley as well as his dedication to academic medicine.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What has it been like working at Stanford with Silicon Valley in your backyard? 

Eric Yablonka: Even if Silicon Valley wasn't in our backyard, Stanford is an amazing place. It's a top-notch academic organization with an incredible medical school and health systems. Being in Silicon Valley, makes it even more interesting in the sense that many of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and business executives have gone to Stanford. In turn, they continue to have a relationship with Stanford. We get exposed to a lot of interesting ideas, innovations and other technologies that are thought provoking. It's a stimulating environment that is exciting to work in. 

Q: How do you foster collaboration and innovation among clinicians? 

EY: At Stanford, it's a team sport. Most recently we unified the school of medicine IT group with the Stanford Health Care IT group. We believe that this will foster collaboration and innovation among clinicians at a higher level. Now that we can support clinicians with research, teaching or patient care, we think it'll bring enhanced coordination and alignment. Specifically, in regard to technology, this initiative will allow us to realign our ecosystem with less friction because we are in one IT group. This should enable collaboration in new ways. 

Q: Some CIOs say the hardest part about the job relates to relationships/culture, not technology. Do you agree? 

EY: Healthcare is definitely a people business. While technology underpins almost everything we do today, people and patients in healthcare still come first. Although many patients appreciate technology that supports their care, most of them are very interested in working directly with their physician and care team. We can never forget that a large part of our responsibility is around change management and how we successfully deploy and adopt technology. This adoption and deployment is not a technology exercise, rather a people exercise. Almost all CIOs recognize that we need to engage our healthcare organizations and our clinical leader and support them through the changes that technology brings. 

Q: What motivated you to continue within the academic medical space? 

EY: I really believe strongly in the three missions of academic healthcare: research, teaching and patient care. I enjoy the innovation and discovery in organizations like Stanford. There is also a layer of complexity to the challenges that we are dealing with, which is interesting and fulfilling. I believe that academic medical centers have a very important place in the healthcare ecosystem, and places like Stanford are leaders in this space. 

Q: When faced with a challenge, how do you overcome it? Whether it be professionally or personally. 

EY: There are always challenges. This is how life goes. For most of us, we don't shy away from challenges. Leaders have to take them on and understand that it's always one foot in front of the other. It doesn't matter if the challenges are long-term and difficult or more emergent in nature, it's important to see them through. People who work in healthcare are oriented to take these complex, large-scale challenges head on and do what's right. It’s why all of us work in healthcare. 

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