Meet the health IT department: Chief data officers

With healthcare technology expanding in so many different directions, new positions are popping up at health systems that didn't exist even a few short years ago.

One is chief data officer, a role that hospitals and health systems have been creating with increasing frequency.

Becker's asked four data executives what makes the role different from other health IT and tech positions.

Note: Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Omer Awan. Chief Data and Digital Officer of Atrium Health (Charlotte, N.C.):

The chief data officer is responsible for:

  • Enterprise-wide data and analytics. This includes data utilization and governance, such as data infrastructure, strategy, management, quality and policies.
  • Business intelligence and data analytics — in some organizations, the chief analytics officer is responsible for data analysis and supporting functions — drawing valuable insights from data and helping inform the next best actions for clinical and business users.
  • Most importantly, promoting data democratization and data literacy across the organization by establishing and cementing data as a strategic asset.

The chief digital officer is responsible for digital strategy, transformation and digital consumer experience across the enterprise. This executive ensures that the company's key strategies are supported by emerging and disruptive technologies, maps digital capabilities to strategic priorities, and leads the way for digital health, digital innovation and commercialization.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the chief data and digital roles. While the digital officer develops new ways to engage consumers in a meaningful and digital way, the data officer focuses on data from these activities to drive value and insights. According to a KPMG study, businesses with chief data officers are twice as likely to have a clear digital strategy. At Atrium Health, we combined these two roles for more value to the organization and greater harmony and superior collaboration among the two areas.

The CIO role has been around the longest and has overall responsibility for information and technology. In many organizations, including Atrium Health, the chief data/digital roles align under the CIO role while others choose other alignments to not overburden the CIO. Regardless of the alignment, a tight and collaborative relationship between each of these roles is essential not only for the success of each role but also for a triumphant organization.

Sha Edathumparampil. Chief Data Officer and Corporate Vice President of Digital of Baptist Health South Florida (Coral Gables): It used to be the chief data officer in health systems focused almost exclusively on data governance and data management, or making clean data available for business use. In some cases, the chief data officer may also own business intelligence report development.

In today's world, while the chief data officer still owns or performs these above-mentioned functions, the focus has shifted primarily toward helping businesses make use or sense of data. Interpreting what the data is telling you is obviously much more complex and requires not only data and technology skills, but also deep understanding of the business, digital technology and advanced analytics abilities such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In many organizations, there is now recognition that to effectively undertake digital transformation, technology, data and digital cannot be entirely separate functions. They are intertwined in ways that make the overall organization less effective if separated into silos. 

Similar to other industries that are undergoing digital transformation, increasingly in healthcare, CIOs, chief technology officers, chief data officers and digital leaders all report to a unified chief digital, data and information officer role who can then set a comprehensive strategy covering all aspects of digital transformation. [At Baptist Health South Florida, that person is Tony Ambrozie, senior vice president and chief digital and information officer.]

Jason Jones. Chief Analytics and Data Science Officer of Health Catalyst: The role of chief data officer in healthcare has become increasingly common over the last five years and is evolving. Typically, chief data officers are responsible for how data is ingested and made available across the enterprise and especially at seams (e.g., accounting and clinical) and in new areas of acquisition (e.g., internet of medical things). Typically, there is a strong link to security. When the chief data and analytics officer is combined into a single role, we often see one aspect sub-optimized.

Josh Kohrumel. Associate CIO (and Former Chief Data Officer) of Rady Children's Hospital (San Diego): To put it succinctly, the role of the chief data officer is to lead enterprise analytics and data engineering. This encompasses day-to-day analytical needs, advanced data science efforts as well as maintenance and evolution of data architecture and backend design to enable such activities.

In most organizations, analytics functions are distributed requiring the chief data officer to be a leader via facilitation and guidance, proving the value of centralized analytics through partnerships that produce success; if you build it, they will come, so to speak. Likewise, chief data officers are the enablers-in-chief with respect to data-driven decision making. They do this by aligning centralized analytics with the data needs of clinical and business leadership, ensuring the availability and timeliness of said data and collaborating with operations to ensure its accuracy.

They likewise are the bridge to start connecting analytics products in the organization to establish recognized, formally blessed data models and authoritative metrics. As demand grows, they're responsible for making sure the backend data management, processing and architecture scale to keep pace so as not to lose converts back to their previous data silos. When organizations start to stand up their own data-science services, it will be important to ensure they are embedded under chief data officers within the enterprise analytics teams given how resource-intensive data science activities are and that 80 percent of data science work falls in the data engineering realm.

While the domains of CIOs, chief digital officers and chief data officers overlap quite a bit, chief data officers lead the charge among all of the involved disciplines to marshal resources and initiatives with a focus on getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

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