From RN to CIO: UCLA Health's Ellen Pollack takes unique path to health IT exec

Ellen Pollack, MSN, RN, took a nontraditional path to become CIO of Los Angeles-based UCLA Health.

She started as the director of nursing there 26 years ago before taking an interest in project work. She oversaw EHR integration and deployment, then became the chief nursing informatics officer.

She was named the permanent CIO at UCLA Health in April, after the system's previous IT leader left for the same role at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford Health Care. 

Becker's recently interviewed Ms. Pollack about the evolution of health IT and what someone with a nursing background brings to the CIO role.

Note: Her responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Question: What has changed most about health IT since you started working in it?

Ellen Pollack: It's dramatically different. When I first started in health IT, we were very much "best of breed." I say that loosely because people thought when they bought an ER system or radiology system it was the best. But by 10 years later, it wasn't quite the best of breed. We ended up having tons of separate systems that didn't talk to each other, making it difficult to coordinate care. Finding the data you needed was very, very painful. Physician practice was largely all on paper, both on the ambulatory side and the inpatient side.

So we have completely transformed. We are an Epic-first shop. One of our guiding principles during our implementation was that if Epic could do it, we would take it. That has made us so much more effective, efficient and integrated.

Q: I recently interviewed Cedars-Sinai CIO Craig Kwiatkowski, PharmD, who comes from a pharmacy background. I'll ask you a similar question that I asked him: How does having a nursing background help in the CIO role?

EP: There are at least two flavors of CIOs. There's the traditional technology-background CIO, and then there is more of the clinical-focused one. In recent years, we're seeing a shift toward valuing the clinical focus. Because no matter how great you are as a CIO, you likely have spots where you have to rely on your technology leads for their expertise.

And so as a clinical-background person, I have to really rely on our chief technology officer, our chief information security officer, our analytics officer to really provide the strategic direction and oversight for those areas. But the value of having a clinical person is the understanding of what the clinical problems are, and being able to really translate those to the technology teams.

What sets our team apart from many teams is that we have a very strong clinical informatics department. We have our chief medical information officer. We have our CNIO. Both of them sit on our leadership team within IT, and we make sure that we connect very, very closely and deeply with clinical operations so we understand what their pain points are, what their hopes are, what their strategic objectives are.

Q: How else has the CIO role changed in recent years?

EP: Without our workforce, we can't accomplish anything. And that landscape has totally changed. Our competition used to be the LA market. We had to worry about our employees going to another LA hospital. But now with so many fully remote options, people can live anywhere and work anywhere. And in order to keep our staff, we have to be more employee-focused than ever before.

So how do we create a work environment that's engaging, a high-growth environment, both with technology and also career ladder? How do we pay effectively to keep these people? How do we build a sense of team? How do we have the staff connect with the mission of what we do, to find meaning in the work? That's an advantage we have because we have a very engaging mission. If we can get the staff to see the connection to that, there's a better chance of us retaining them. The emphasis on our people has never been more significant.

Q: Obviously staffing is a big one, but what other health IT issues are you spending most of your time on nowadays?

EP: IT security is always top of mind for all of us. As much as we do, it's never enough to feel secure, but that's something that we're always keeping a very close eye on.

Another thing we are spending a lot of time on is clinical research and bringing research into clinical practice. Whether that's artificial intelligence tools or genomics, we need to more efficiently translate research into clinical practice. We're trying to develop a smoother pathway to have that happen in a safe, efficient, smart way.

Q: What IT projects or innovations are you most proud of?

EP: During the COVID crisis, our team stepped up in such a quick, deep way to build out whatever our clinicians needed — whether that was telehealth for ambulatory practice, implementing inpatient video visits for families, or all the vaccine work. Through the evolution of COVID, we continued to adapt and very, very quickly found technology solutions for whatever the clinical problem was of the day.

Our team has also been working on a cybersecurity playbook. So even though we're doing tons of work to prevent a cyberattack, we're developing, in partnership with our Office of Emergency Preparedness, a playbook. So if an event were to happen, we would have a guide for how to respond. Knowing that we now have a playbook established makes us all feel a little bit more secure.

When I first became CIO, I did what I called my listening tour and scheduled meetings with people throughout the organization. I then took the top pain points or challenges, and we set up some internal workgroups to address those. We developed a strategic plan that's focused specifically on how we can become the best IT organization out there. We focused it on people, processes and technology. So we're focusing both outward and inward at the same time.

Q: What would you say is coming in the future for health IT?

EP: One of the things we are going to be really focused on is continuing to work on the patient experience and our digital front door — how easily we allow our patients to access us in whatever mode they want to access us. We have a digital patient experience governance group that is going to be pulling in health IT and marketing and operational leadership to make sure we are meeting or exceeding what our patients are looking for.

Q: Health systems structure their CIO positions differently, with some having digital or transformation in the title. Is there anything unique about your role at UCLA Health, or would you say yours is a traditional health IT leadership position?

EP: I know a lot of CIOs are also digital officers, and working titles change throughout the years. When you have a CIO who comes from a technology background and not from a clinical background, I feel there's a greater need to have a chief digital health officer who provides that operational understanding and translation. When you have the clinical background and a CMIO and a CNIO, we really have that piece taken care of. So I don't feel the need for a working title change. I think we have the space covered, and that's the most important thing.

Q: How has your department contributed to making UCLA Health one of the top-rated hospital systems in the country?

EP: If I had to pick one thing that I think makes us most successful, it's our relationship to operations. Whether it's the business office, finance, lab, radiology, we have people who are responsible for those relationships and often attend their leadership meetings and are really embedded. So we're not an afterthought when they have a problem. We're at the table to help think through it and then offer technology solutions.

We have a large IT department, and we have tons of longevity and dedicated, smart, energetic, passionate employees. I'm so grateful for that, because without them we wouldn't be able to accomplish our goals.

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