Johns Hopkins Medicine CIO wants to be IT 'conductor,' blending genomics, generative AI

Richard Mendola, PhD, the new vice president and CIO of Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine, told Becker's he hopes to be the "conductor of the orchestra," providing the technology that will enable the "brilliant" minds at his academic health system to advance the practice of medicine.

Dr. Mendola joined Johns Hopkins in March, overseeing IT for both the 6-hospital system and the university, after working in the same role for Atlanta-based Emory University and Healthcare since 2005. He leads an IT staff of about 1,300 people, two-thirds focused on healthcare operations

"I've got lots of smart technology people who work for me, and we certainly have brilliant Nobel laureate-class faculty who are doing incredible work, so I'm never going to outthink any of those people," he said. "My job is, more or less, to be the conductor of the orchestra and just try to get everybody playing together and moving the organization forward as rapidly as we can."

He is excited to see where advances in precision medicine and generative artificial intelligence go, especially as pioneers in both areas are "literally right at our doorstep here," he said.

"We're going from these overly simplistic models of disease to much more refined models that bring in imaging data and genomic data and apply machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to understanding far more nuanced versions of disease and health," he said.

He said he plans to justify investments in those areas and ensure deidentified patient data can safely flow throughout the organization to glean important clinical and research insights. He also hopes to strengthen the security of the cloud, where many of those precision medicine projects live. Johns Hopkins still has about 70 percent of its IT operations on-premises, including its Epic EHR.

"Our mindset has always been 'let's find ways to do that so that the burden of compliance isn't placed on either investigators or clinicians,'" Dr. Mendola said. "Let's do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, so they can do their discoveries."

He is also enthusiastic about AI's potential to initially help reduce administrative work for healthcare providers.

"We still want to keep humans in the loop," he said. "We want to take advantage of having some of the most sophisticated clinicians in the world here. And they clearly get to make the final call. But anything we can do to strip out unnecessary documentation burdens is just going to make a huge, huge difference in their lives, and ultimately they get to spend more time directly engaging with the patient, which is what it's all about for us."

Dr. Mendola is also keeping the "old-school" CIO title, even as other health systems add terms like digital and innovation to the moniker. "I just want to get stuff done," he said. "As long as, a year from now, they're referring to me as the guy that gets stuff done, that's all that really matters."

Dr. Mendola trained as a clinical psychologist before becoming fascinated with data and getting his first CIO job at University of Illinois hospital in Chicago around the era of Y2K. He said his background has come in handy.

"When you think about what CIOs at large organizations do, after you've actually moved away from the frontlines your technical skills atrophy fairly quickly. What you're really doing is large-scale organizational change management," he said. "And it's not a bad skill set to have been a psychologist when you're doing large-scale organizational change."

Generative AI, for instance, is "exciting, but also it's going to be terrifying to some people," he said. "And you've got to find a way to manage that and make sure you're not being too disruptive as you try to move the organization forward. When you've got 60,000-plus employees, you have to make sure there's a good understanding of the work that's being done, making sure it's synergistic and not antagonistic."

At the end of the day, he said, his job is about "improving patient outcomes." 

"It's hard to find people that haven't been touched by healthcare," he said. "So it's something that resonates with many, and we spend a lot of money in our society doing that. We would certainly like to find ways to make it both better and more cost-effective."

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