How Proliance Surgeons CIO is promoting innovation and retaining talent

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For the past 29 years, Curt Kwak has been asking more from his team. As the CIO of Seattle-based Proliance Surgeons, Mr. Kwak celebrates his team's successes while encouraging them to do better.

To be a successful leader, Mr. Kwak has looked beyond the expectations set by others. In doing so, he has been able to improve technology implementation and maintenance at Proliance Surgeons. Prior to joining Proliance Surgeons, Mr. Kwak served as the CIO of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange.

Below, Mr. Kwak discusses how he promotes innovation as well as how he overcomes obstacles.

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

Question: How has the rise in viewing patients as consumers changed health IT?

Curt Kwak: To me, patients are consumers. They should have the right to receive the best healthcare they can possibly get and have a say in their healthcare options. It’s their health. It’s their life. When that right is taken away, it is not proper healthcare.

I know the system wasn’t designed this way in the past due to the payers, networks and population mixes. Patients also put their health in the hands of their provider. The key is to always look to provide the best care possible and always try to empower the patients to make decisions by providing easy to understand options. In turn, we would also expect a level of patient responsibility as well — that they are clear on their desires, their feelings and their conditions. If they are prescribed certain things, I don’t think it’s too unreasonable for us to expect them to follow through.

Maybe the general healthcare infrastructure was built to delineate the patients and the consumers.  But information and education are key. Leaders need to know how well the caregiver can educate the patient and how well the patient can educate themselves to meet each other in the middle.

How this changes heath IT is in regard to interoperability and availability of information through the healthcare journey.

Q: How do you get the rest of the team into an innovative mindset/on board with rapid-fire digital transformation?

CK: Always ask for more from your team. Ask for more while doing more. Celebrate the successes, and if not as successful, remind them that it’s a learning moment and encourage them to do better. Not only do better but be better. We live in a world that yearns for innovation and new things are popping around us all the time. There’s nobody out there that knows everything. Much of this digital transformation is new in our industry.

It’s about fighting the assumptions and not limiting yourselves to the expectations set by others. Leaders must look beyond those expectations and remind themselves that they can do better than those expectations. It’s all mind over matter.

My 29 years of experience in technology has reminded me of this over and over.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles you face when deploying a new tech/innovation initiative? How do you overcome them?

CK: Our environment is unique in that we have a collection of different care centers and different cultures in each care center that make up the enterprise. We allow a level of diversity in culture, and in some cases, technology and platform, which allows improved employee morale, fairly seamless onboarding of new care centers and the uniqueness in an environment that’s like no other.

These of course pose massive challenges for the different central departments that provide administrative support for these care centers, but at the same time, the diversity created versatility also creates opportunities to learn, be innovative and try things that have not been tried before. This sense of adventure can be an advantage for folks looking for new things, but this certainly is not for the faint of heart.

One of the biggest ways to overcome this big challenge is to trust your employees to do the right thing.  Let them do the work and don’t criticize or judge.

Q: What strategies do you have for leaders looking to create a culture that promotes collaboration?

CK: Our internal IT strategies shift every year to keep things fresh and spontaneous as well as to minimize culture fatigue and stagnation. However, one thing that never changes is our focus on the best customer service possible and care of our employees. If you have these two things down solid, everything will fall into place.

Q: What is the most difficult part of your role?

CK: The most difficult part of my role is to balance the need for our organization while trying to fulfill those needs with the resources provided by the organization. I will never ask for more than I need. I challenge our people to always try to do more than they think they can. But with that comes mentoring, caring and also weeding out the talents to embrace this difficult challenge.

Part of this challenge is also retaining the good talent we have. We are surrounded by world class healthcare as well as technology companies here in Seattle and hiring good talent is difficult enough. Retaining them is even more difficult. We do what we can by providing the best working environment possible and also try to provide the best development and training programs possible for these employees to be challenged and motivated to provide the best IT service possible to our customers. The term “servant leadership” really is the story here, as our employees are the most valuable assets we have here at Proliance Surgeons.

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