Life of a healthcare CIO: Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands' Robert Napoli

In collaboration with CHIME, Becker's Hospital Review's "Life of a Healthcare CIO" series features leading hospital and health system CIOs from across the country who are sharing their experiences, best practices and challenges.

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An interview with Robert Napoli, CIO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands.

(Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Question: You've been in the healthcare IT sector for nearly 20 years but started your current position in July 2013. Over your career, how have you seen the health IT industry change?

robertnapoliRobert Napoli: Initially, at least in terms of technology, IT spend was clearly more discretionary. Back in the day, it was harder to make the case for investment in technology as IT was traditionally viewed as a cost center. That slowly changed over time as clinical and business users saw the operational benefits that technology could provide. Meaningful use changed all of that and made investments in technology an imperative for most of us. Technology is now more of a business differentiator than an operational task — although keeping the lights on is clearly still important — and the modern CIO needs to be a business leader and strategist first. That wasn't the case 20 years ago.

Q: What are some initiatives you're working on right now?

RN: I spent my first 30 days in the position assessing our technology as well as our personnel and business practices and policies. At the end of the day, any IT department is really comprised of those three components — people, processes and technology. High performing IT organizations need to be strong in all three of those areas, and I developed a two-year transformation plan from this work.

I often describe the last couple of years like trying to change a car's oil while driving it down the road in the sense that we still need to deliver on all of the regulatory requirements — like meaningful use and ICD-10 — and operational expectations while concurrently trying to make major changes. That can be extremely challenging.

My first year, we spent a considerable amount of money and time replacing our infrastructure — brand new networks, new email system, new storage systems, new servers. Now that the underlying infrastructure has been replaced we're starting to look at end-user performance, system optimization, business intelligence and security.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you're currently facing?

RN: From the technology perspective, my challenge, which is a common one, is being able to deliver the systems and services to our end users given a limited budget and an extremely lean bench of support staff. It doesn't take much to throw us off schedule. For example, our recent merger with the Hawaii affiliate* is something that happened extremely quickly. We first heard about it in February, and by March it was a done deal. Things like that really have a big impact on us. I need to be extremely nimble and resourceful given what has been a very unpredictable roadmap.

Organizationally, we're in a hyper-competitive market. While we have an extremely strong brand and provide high-quality services, our patients have a myriad of healthcare options, and we are constantly looking at ways to improve the patient experience so that we can retain our patients and attract new ones. Technology plays a big role in this.

*Editor's note: Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest took ownership of Planned Parenthood of Hawaii to become what is now Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands.

Q: Who would you say are your main competitors? Are they more so acute-care hospitals or specialty outpatient clinics?

RN: Consolidation has been the trend for the past several years. Many acute-care hospitals have merged with bigger organizations or have disappeared altogether. A lot of services traditionally offered by hospitals are now being performed in an ambulatory setting. We have clinics in many of our service areas that provide one-stop shopping for nearly all primary and specialty services. I believe these multi-specialty clinics are our biggest competition.

Q: What is your favorite part about this industry?

RN: I am absolutely passionate about this industry. While I love technology and the business challenges of healthcare, I also have a very strong conviction about being in an industry that, as I like to say, leaves the world a little bit better than how I found it. Health IT has all of that. As a member of our executive team, I help define the business strategy for the organization and lead the discussion on how technology can help meet those objectives. Because technology is in a constant state of development, I get to participate in this process in a very vibrant way. At the end of the day, you know that the work that you and your team are doing is actually making a difference in people's lives. Your work helps make them healthier, and this improves the quality of their lives. That is extremely rewarding for me.

Q: What is one lesson you've learned that you would like to share with other CIOs?

RN: The benefits of networking. That's something that I've learned very profoundly over the course of my career. We all share the same challenges despite the differences in our organizations' size and internal resources, and it took me a little while to realize how helpful my peers could be when I had questions or needed a different perspective. It's also extremely rewarding to help others by reciprocating. I'm continually impressed with how supportive our industry is, and I would encourage those that are not active in associations like CHIME and HIMSS to do so.

More articles on CIOs:

10 career lessons from CIOs, for CIOs
Life of a healthcare CIO: UnityPoint Health's Joy Grosser
Some CIOs look to insurers for cybersecurity standards

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