SSM Health Care CIO Tom Langston: Emerging Role of Health IT in the System's Strategic Plan

In the past, the value of hospitals' and health systems' IT departments was based on the technological assistance they provided to the organization. Chief information officers' responsibilities were generally limited to solving computer and other equipment issues. Now, however, CIOs' role and the role of IT in healthcare organizations is expanding significantly as new technologies become integral to the safe and efficient delivery of care. Tom Langston, senior vice president-CIO of St. Louis-based SSM Health Care, explains how IT is taking on a more strategic role in the system than it has in the past.

Strategic plan
Mr. Langston is senior leader for SSM Integrated Health Technologies, an organization that is responsible for information technology and clinical engineering services for SSM hospitals. The group has its own management team, budget and strategic plan. In fact, IHT is shifting how it approaches its strategic plan, according to Mr. Langston. In the past IHT would focus on metrics such as the number of calls into the client response center, the amount of system downtime and other internal measures. "That is all very important from an operational perspective, but from a strategic perspective, we are trying to make a transition into how IT and clinical engineering really provide value to the business and how what we do and can do can carry out the strategies of the overall system, not just the technology arm of the system," he says.

For example, IT has to be involved in the change from paper records to electronic medical records, which is the core requirement of the meaningful use incentive program. EMRs have also been shown to improve quality of patient care, highlighting IT's impact on the delivery of care. "Now what we do really touches patients and physicians unlike it used to in a paper world," Mr. Langston says.

"This departure from IT's historical position as more of a support organization to a key player in patient care presents new opportunities to prove our value to the organization," Mr. Langston says. IHT is collecting examples, such as a reduction in medical errors, of how technology has helped improve patient care. For example, IHT has found SSM's technology that scans the patient for medication information at the bedside has reduced drug errors, Mr. Langston says.  

Another initiative IHT is using to implement its strategic plan is changing the language in its interactions with hospital employees. The IT group now uses "colleagues" instead of "customers" when referring and talking to the user community. "We're trying to change that language to instill in people that we are part of the same team," Mr. Langston says. In turn, they hope the user community does not think of IHT as a "vendor" and instead recognizes its role as a partner in achieving the hospital's overall goals. Mr. Langston says one of his biggest concerns regarding the language is that the hospitals view the IT organization as a vendor, which carries a negative connotation. "We are part of a care team now more so than ever because of the changes in technology [to] healthcare. We have the same mission, the same objectives: to provide exceptional healthcare services."

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