Striking the right partnerships, IT investments when margins are tight: Key thoughts from former John Muir Health CIO Jon Russell

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Walnut Creek, Calif.-based John Muir Health partnered with Optum earlier this year, and former CIO Jon Russell sees a big opportunity to affect quality of care and the patient experience as a result.

Here, Mr. Russell describes how to balance managing costs while improving data analytics and management for the system, as well as potential benefits from the health system's Optum partnership in the coming years.

Question: If 2020 is a successful year for IT leaders, what will it look like?

Jon Russell: One of the most important things that healthcare is faced with is how to manage costs effectively. A successful 2020 will depend on how well you manage costs in the area of your responsibility to improve margin effectively. As more health systems have neutral to negative margins, there will be a focus on reducing the overall administrative services costs.

Q: From the IT department, how do you manage costs?

JR: The effectiveness as a leader depends on managing costs to maintain a strong margin while also providing access to data clinicians need to maintain and improve quality. Clinical quality is extremely important and you have to support the organization's quality goals while also managing costs. That will be the real focus for IT and organizations in the coming year and beyond.

Q: I'm sure many new technologies and platforms come across your desk. How do you decide what to invest in as you are trying to control costs?

JR: It depends on your organizational needs. You have to have a successful data and analytics strategy, so the platform and solution you select has to provide the actionable data your health system needs. You have to have a well thought out strategy, governance program and supporting platform. There are many tools available to manage your operations and data, but you have to figure out which ones to keep and which ones are not going to be pursued further. Those will be critical conversations among a leadership team overall. There has been hesitancy in healthcare to have those conversations around what we aren't going to do, but it's necessary going forward.

Q: Where is John Muir focusing most of their attention next year?

JR: Most of the time will be spent executing on partnerships. John Muir has a stated strategy for scale that has hinged on affiliations and partnerships. They have been successful in partnering with Stanford Children's, Tenet, UCSF and most recently a partnership around smart sourcing with Optum. In 2020, the real focus is going to be implementing the smart sourcing strategy so it is successfully executed. There are also a few more potential partnerships on the horizon, so John Muir will need to be sure to set their goals at the beginning of the year to achieve return on those partnership investments.

Q: Could you provide a bit more detail about John Muir's partnership with Optum. What will they be able to do after executing the smart sourcing strategy?

JR: The Optum partnership brings incredible care management capabilities. There is a huge potential upside to the partnership with Optum in care management as well as improving care quality and managing patient relationships more effectively. The next step is to take the capabilities from the partnership and improve the care of the community in a way John Muir Health could not do on its own.

Q: What is the biggest potential threat to John Muir Health?

JR: The biggest threat is the same that everyone is facing: there is a lot of risk around the cost of care because of the uncertainty about how the industry will move nationally. Organizations have to continue to become more cost effective as an attempt to manage the uncertainty and risk about how health system will be reimbursed for the care provided. The biggest risk I see is the inability to become more flexible and cost efficient, which could put the system at risk if the reimbursement model changes significantly.

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