5 Best Practices for Implementing Health IT Across a Large Health System

As 2011 nears, hospitals and healthcare systems are racing to implement electronic medical record systems in their organizations. The benefits of deploying an EMR system are many — potentially reduced costs, improved clinical outcomes, incentive payments — but implementation is no easy feat, particularly for larger healthcare systems that may need to deploy a system across several facilities. Here, Ron Strachan, senior vice president and CIO of WellStar Health System in Atlanta, shares five ways leaders of health systems can implement an EMR system with fewer complications and in a shorter amount of time.

1. Obtain all-around buy-in. For any health system, half the battle in successful deployment of health IT across an entire enterprise depends on whether there is top-to-bottom buy-in from upper management, physicians and staff members. EMRs and other health IT solutions and applications can only be used meaningfully if physicians and staff can get on board as end-users. Mr. Strachan says WellStar has only occasionally run into some resistance from staff members, but buy-in has improved over time.

"That's happening less and less because we have conversations with WellStar physicians and staff members on the importance of our projects and why it is important they participate," he says. "With each successful project, there's less of a need to convince the rest of the health system to support us and engage in future projects."

2. Focus on project management. Delegating specific projects out to project managers is a cornerstone to WellStar's successful deployment of its EMR system and other health IT initiatives. This requires work on both the leadership and project management sides to closely align, effectively communicate and work together toward a commonly shared goal. Mr. Strachan likens the working relationship he has with his staff members to that of a conductor and an orchestra, who must ensure each role player has the right training with the right instrument and plays at the right time.

"There is nothing unique to the success of any given project except making sure you are getting the most traction out of the people that are assigned to work on [it]," Mr. Strachan says. "This means making sure staff members are fully engaged, properly trained and given the resources needed to be successful."

3. Consult industry experts.
Not only has WellStar consulted experts on how to use certain IT applications in its initial stages, but it also had the experts come to WellStar facilities and work with hospital staff members side-by-side. This helps the system avoid the need to rely on vendors or other IT companies in case there is a technical issue with one of its servers or applications.

"We're currently going down the path of successfully adopting server and workstation virtualization, and how we're doing that is making sure we're getting industry expertise to help teach our staff how to not only virtualize our environment but also understand the nuance of virtualization," he says. "What this means for us in the long-term is we're building up that knowledge on the front-end so the health system itself possesses the competency to maintain the system."

4. Regularly hold meetings. At WellStar, leadership team meetings are held at least every other week to discuss a wide array of health IT-related issues, including what projects are in need of extra support. Leadership team meetings also give leaders a chance to look into the future and start preparing for other potential health IT projects ahead of time. Mr. Strachan says the health system also has smaller work groups that meet to focus on specific projects.

"For each project, these smaller work groups get together on a regular basis to ensure we are firing all cylinders," he says. "The work groups sometimes can meet through in-person meetings or even virtual meetings where team members are exchanging thoughts and questions through e-mail or instant message."

5. Prepare for meaningful use.
Health systems will ultimately have to demonstrate to the government that their organizations have deployed health IT and are actively and meaningfully using these systems to improve the health status of their communities. Given that this is the ultimate goal, health systems should keep a clear focus on how all proposed and ongoing projects are going to contribute to the organization's end-goal of meaningful use. Since it is already a challenge to spread so much time and resources across a multi-facility enterprise, health systems should make it a best practice to keep a discriminating eye on what projects to pursue.

Mr. Strachan says the concept of meaningful use has had an immensely huge impact on WellStar because it has forced the health system to rethink and reprioritize its health IT initiatives.

"First and foremost, if a proposed project is not directly related to meaningful use and [doesn't] meet at least one of the required criteria of meaningful use, then we can't afford the time to work on that project," he says. "We have an organization where the IT staff wants to make people happy, but we want to avoid the fault of saying 'yes' too much."

Learn more about WellStar Health System.

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