SSM Health CIO Sony Jacob: How to tackle healthcare's wicked problems

Partnerships with the community, government, industry organizations, investors and patients are crucial to solving healthcare's "wicked problems," according to St. Louis-based SSM Health CIO Sony Jacob.

At the Becker's Hospital Review Health IT + Revenue Cycle Conference in Chicago, CIO of SSM Health Sony Jacob delivered a presentation titled "Reinventing the CIO as Executive Consultant."

He began by comparing the age of healthcare itself — the first hospital was established in the continental U.S. in eighteenth century, meaning healthcare as we know it is more than 300 years old — with the age of the tech sector being closer to 30, still in its infancy.

The dilemma is that CIOs often look to technology to solve problems, but it cannot solve all of them. "We have wicked problems in healthcare today," he said, before outlining the mindset needed to begin tackling those problems.

Mr. Jacob defined wicked problems as those that are almost impossible to solve because the requirements are incomplete and contradictory at times. Sometimes, culture and leadership need to be solved. "As healthcare executives, we need to look at the problem. We need to stop looking at solutions," he said.

SSM is among the few healthcare organizations with a fully fledged health plan; around half of the health plan's population is fully capitated. They have a pharmacy benefit manager that covers around 5.5 million lives and it grows 10 percent every year because it's a transparent PBM with savings passed on to its customers.

"For us, it's about controlling the cost of care. Anything we can do to control the cost of care and move our ministry forward, we are willing to do,” Mr. Jacob said.

There is no secret sauce for solving healthcare’s wicked problems, he explained; success comes from collaboration with communities, government, partner organizations, investors and patients. One example is SSM's investment in partnership with multiple other systems in Civica Rx, a nonprofit generic drug company.

In another example, SSM Health realized there were neighboring hospitals that were unable to purchase EHR on their own. SSM extended Epic EHR to several hospitals that wouldn't otherwise have EHR without the subsidy. "By doing that, we are improving care in those communities. By doing that, we are living out our mission. By doing that, we are solving a wicked problem in healthcare,” he said.

The system created the IT consultancy, which follows these steps:

1. Figure out: what is the problem?
2. Formulate the statement
3. Understand what the desired outcomes are
4. Contemplate: why haven't we solved this problem before

"If we solve one [of our] wicked problems, we have moved the needle. This is the opportunity I am going to challenge my peers with and the vice presidents that I work with; let's think about solving some problems," Mr. Jacob said.

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