8 thoughts from Cleveland Clinic CIO Dr. C. Martin Harris on decision-making and leadership

The interconnectedness of healthcare requires individuals to have skills and knowledge of areas and departments outside their specific area of expertise. An Atlantic story from 2014 explored the growing trend of physicians graduating from joint MD/MBA programs, noting the number of such programs increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone. The leadership suite is no different, as a number of executive leaders have MD backgrounds, among other advanced degrees.

C. Martin Harris, MD, CIO of Cleveland Clinic, is one of those executives. Dr. Harris holds an MD and an MBA, both from University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In addition to his executive duties, Dr. Harris is also a practicing physician, board-certified in internal medicine.

Here, he shared some insight on how his multiple backgrounds contribute to his daily decision-making, as well as what CIOs should keep an eye on in 2016.

Note: Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: You have a long, multifaceted background in both the clinical and business sides of healthcare. What made you decide to pursue both an MD and an MBA?

dr. c. martin harrisDr. C. Martin Harris: I began my career with the intention of becoming an academic physician. I imagined that I would split my time between actually practicing medicine and doing research around the macro healthcare questions related to quality, service and cost that might allow me to make a positive impact on the medical practice model itself. To do that work, access to accurate, timely data about the realities of clinical practice is crucial. And, during my research training, one of the first things I realized was that, at that time, access to that kind of real data simply didn't exist. That was because computers were not really being used as a part of patient care. So at least partially, the shift in my career trajectory from academic research to administrative leadership happened because I wanted to do everything I could to help get the kinds of health information technology systems deployed in the clinical space that would make the research work I originally envisioned possible for future generations of physician scientists.

Q: How do you use your MBA in the day-to-day?

CMH: One of the biggest and potentially consequential challenges in healthcare today is driving real value for patients in ways that will keep high quality care available and affordable for everyone. To address this challenge, we have to start by defining what real value is. In the healthcare industry, we do that by measuring the quality of the care we deliver over the cost of delivering that care. My medical education taught me how clinical outcomes and other metrics can reflect care quality. My MBA prepared me to more fully understand the financial and organizational intricacies represented by the cost side of the equation.

Q: What advantages does having formal training in multiple backgrounds provide you? How does being a practicing physician influence the decisions you may make as a CIO?

CMH: My physician training is incredibly important because it grounded me in the practical, demanding activity that is the practice of medicine. That personal experience means that I don't have to try to imagine a clinician's needs; the clinician's point of view is my point of view. It is what I was trained to do. So when it comes to introducing technology into the practice of medicine, I understand the potential workflow or productivity impact of a decision in a way that only someone who manages a clinical practice can. My medical training allows me to see the world through the eyes of a practicing physician; my MBA helps me see how management decisions impact the health of an enterprise made up of many clinical practices and support functions. Both perspectives are important, and being able to see and understand the healthcare world in that way is critical.

Q: As a CIO, what is the biggest challenge you face today?

CMH: Probably the biggest challenge for a CIO in a provider organization today involves helping an organization drive to scale because I think that healthcare in the future is increasingly going to be delivered by organizations who can demonstrate that they are in fact delivering quality in a cost-effective way. One of the ways of achieving that is to efficiently increase the scale of the organization in terms of the numbers of patients that can be served while leveraging the economies of scale that can only be understood through a detailed and real-time flow of actionable data. That critical data is really the foundational insight that will inform our future management, and as a CIO, creating the infrastructure and integrated systems that will support that work has to be a priority.

Q: How has Cleveland Clinic succeeded in doing that?

CMH: Our administrative leadership team has been actively working to identify and align all the capabilities we need to succeed in a way that is both scalable and replicable across the organization, making coordinated care delivery through a range of alternative, technology-powered service models, a competitive feature of today's Cleveland Clinic.

Q: What is a lesson you've learned you'd like to share with other CIOs?

CMH: I think one big message that I would emphasize is that while technology can be complicated, a very important service today's HIT professionals can provide to their colleagues in any organization is making technology a little easier to understand. To do that, we need communication. We need to engage with our colleagues regularly and often. And we have to take responsibility for finding ways to help them understand the things about technology that are important to them. That requires real work because it can be really hard to make something look easy.

Q: Looking ahead, what is one thing CIOs should focus on or look forward to in 2016?

CMH: In 2016 and beyond, CIOs should be thinking about bringing new skill sets into their organizations. To me, those skills sets would include business analyst capabilities and enterprise-wide systems design. And by that, I do not mean just information system design. In the 21st century, we must reimagine a healthcare system that will be built upon capabilities and connections that simply did not exist just a few years ago. To envision a new kind of HIT-enabled system of care, we will need people who see the role of technology in a more integrated way.  

Historically, the employees in an IT division were only thought of as the people who managed the computers or the network or the data center. In the very near future, the people in your IT division will only spend part of their time working in the division because if they are going to be effective in helping us design better ways to deliver care, they will need to engage with their clinical colleagues directly in their clinical practices. That will give them a new way to see the work they do, and it will give all of us the opportunity to more clearly see and actively contribute to a future healthcare system that we can build together.

More articles on CIOs:

Why CIOs should start thinking like venture capitalists
5 lessons from American Airlines' CIO on IT integration
40 CIO leadership moves & appointments in 2015

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