Johns Hopkins CIO Stephanie Reel: Top insights from nearly 30 years in health IT

Throughout her decades-long career leading healthcare information technology and services at Johns Hopkins, Stephanie Reel has embodied three core tenets that have led to her success: be kind, be truthful and follow through.

"That sounds so easy and trivial, but when someone calls and says can you call me back, do it. If someone calls with a system problem, help them. Meet with your team and listen to the customers who have a concern. If you tell the truth, do what you say you're going to do, and always be kind to one another, I don't think you can fail," she said, as she spoke about being a successful leader.

Ms. Reel became vice president for information services for Johns Hopkins Medicine in 1994 and then vice provost for information technology and CIO for Johns Hopkins University in 1999. She now serves as CIO for all divisions of the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University and Health System. During her tenure, she has been honored by the Smithsonian Institute and Healthcare Informatics for her innovation in IT. The university implemented self-service solutions for faculty, staff and students under her leadership and she oversees the health system's efforts to advance EHR utilization. Her responsibilities also include strategic planning for telecommunications, information services and networking.

Last year, Ms. Reel announced her plans to retire this summer. Ahead of her departure, Ms. Reel took a few minutes to discuss her career and where she sees health IT headed in the future.

Question: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome as CIO?

Stephanie Reel: The scarce availability of capital in the nonprofit world, especially in academia at a university. There is always a temptation to invest in the next greatest technology and given the environment in which we work, we have to be thoughtful and respectful and make purposeful use of our resources. There is competition for resources. The greatest single challenge is to make sure our investments are thoughtful and align with the mission of the organization.

Q: How do you make sure you're a good steward of the health system's dollars?

SR: We have very explicit guiding principles here in IT at Hopkins on the AMC side of our business. The guiding principle for everything we do is what is best for the patient. The second guiding principle is doing what is best for the people delivering care for the patient, and finally doing what is best for the students and education of the students. That makes my job easier.

Q: Can you give an example of technology over the years that has really been worth the investment?

SR: There have been many examples over the past 30 years, but I would have to say one of the most beneficial has been the approach we have taken in the design, development and implementation of systems. It sounds trivial, but our approach has paid off because the work we do has to be completely informed by the customer. But the customer has to be redefined based on the project we're working on, whether it's the patient, physicians, researchers or students. We always aim to listen carefully, partner respectfully and be thoughtful about the implementation while also making sure that the implementation is respectful of the tech challenges, as well as user expectations, demand and requirements.

The thing that feels best about what we've done is that in every case the design of a system at a detail level has been informed by the end users, whether that's the patient, researcher or educator. There is competition for resources and we need to make sure we are doing what is best. The famous line from the Field of Dreams is, 'If you build it, they will come.' Around here, we have a favorite quote: 'If they build it with you, they are already there.'

Q: What is the best advice you received that helped you excel throughout your career? Would you still give that advice today?

SR: I've been incredibly fortunate to have worked with amazing people who are generous with their time, guidance and advice. I try to transfer that to all new IT people at Hopkins. I do group meetings and spend an hour with every new IT recruit. We talk about what I learned in kindergarten, but also from my mentors and colleagues. It all boils down to three things: being kind, telling the truth and doing what you say you're going to do.

I also tell all of the new recruits not to go home at the end of the day feeling wrong, broken or sad about something that happens at work. We want to address problems and friction to resolve issues right away when we can. If something bugs you during the day, we want to deal with it. Come see the manager or supervisor to fix it. You should go home to your family in a good place.

Q: What is the most important lesson you learned while building and leading the Johns Hopkins health IT team?

SR: One of the things that makes this place wonderful and relatively speaking, easy to be a leader, is that we are surrounded by really amazing people who are incredibly dedicated to the vision and mission of the organization. Years ago, I had an employee tempted to go somewhere else. We talked about what it would take for her to stay, and she wanted exposure to our faculty. She had gotten so deeply embedded in the tech that she was losing sight of why she was here. I arranged for her to meet with a senior faculty member that was respected and he was honored to meet with her. She retired from here 20 years later.

We are so busy and have limited resources, and people get caught up with the day-to-day rhythm of their responsibilities. But we have an amazing faculty and compelling scientists here that are doing great things, which makes this a great place to work. You have a great degree of exposure that doesn't happen everywhere.

Q: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for technology to improve healthcare in the future?

SR: We are all getting weary of the term artificial intelligence, but in fact I think that's what we need to achieve this transformative use of technology, and more importantly the transformative use of information. When I think back over 30 years, we've been incredibly focused on how to make tech functionality more focused, better and interoperable; now we're finally at the point that it's the information coming in and out of all our systems that is earning our respect. The information is making a difference for physicians, nurses, care providers, educators and researchers.

We launched a precision medicine initiative that is focused on using data wisely for every patient individually. It's so amazing that we are finally at this point and it's one of the most exciting times in my experience that we recognize the value of information in decision-making. For the first time, it feels like information is what it's all about. It's inspirational to see what we can do with that information to advance in science and patient care. We can make quicker, wiser decisions.

 

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