The future of the healthcare CIO: Expanding roles, relationships and opportunities

The role of the healthcare CIO has been, and continues to evolve to meet changing organizational, clinical and population health-related demands with increasingly capable and innovative technology. As the CIO's role continues to adapt to these forces, it is becoming increasingly strategic and relationship-oriented.

In a Feb. 25 webinar sponsored by IT Optimizers, a panel of health IT insiders discussed the evolving role of the CIO. Panelists included John Glaser, PhD, senior vice president of Cerner; Zan Calhoun, CIO of Denver, Colo.-based DaVita HealthCare Partners; Paul Kleeburg, MD, chair of the board of directors of HIMSS and CMIO of Bloomington, Minn.-based Stratis Health; and M. Michelle Hood, president and CEO of Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. Joseph DeLuca, managing practice director of IT Optimizers, moderated the session.

The panelists shared optimism and excitement about the CIO's increasingly critical role in healthcare, as well as many of its emerging derivative positions. Additionally, the panelists outlined the importance of maintaining strong, collaborative relationships with other executives and across the system.

Key takeaways from the webinar are shown below.

1. Incoming CIOs will be most successful if they possess interpersonal skills in addition to technological knowledge. As CIOs engage in more strategic, collaborative work and establish a stronger presence in the C-suite, it will become increasingly necessary for them to demonstrate strong interpersonal skills. When interviewing prospective CIOs, candidates will be evaluated for their ability to collaborate and be a good team member, in addition to their technological qualifications and domain knowledge.

Mr. Calhoun suggests CIOs will need to become "sociological masters" who demonstrate the ability to deal with many different groups of people — including other executives and managers, providers and patients — and understand their expectations.

According to Ms. Hood, these interpersonal skills should even be written into CIOs' job descriptions when seeking CIO candidates.

"We recently hired a new CIO. When we were re-examining the position's description, we put a lot of emphasis on both internal and external team and partnership development skills," Ms. Hood said. "Of course the CIO needs to be able to recognize the technical requirements and the things that keep us running on a day-to-day basis, but we need someone who can work in a high-level strategy team and be able to translate that into actual tactics and capabilities."

Essentially, a successful CIO will need to exhibit the skills required for any leadership position, including broad strategic abilities, communication skills and the ability to get things done, according to Dr. Glaser.

2. Adaptability is essential. Mr. Calhoun said he likes to think of the CIO's responsibilities as a Venn diagram — but not a traditional one. The three circles are project management, social concerns and business support. However, these circles are always changing in size and the degree to which they connect or disconnect from other cells.

"You must be sensitive to the constantly changing environment and be able to determine the right priorities on a daily or weekly basis," Mr. Calhoun said. "There are immediate and long-term responsibilities, but all of these change on a routine basis."

Being receptive and adaptive is the key to survival amidst changing organizational, industry and consumer demands. In healthcare, technology will only advance and the CIO role will continuously evolve.

"If you're a CIO early in your career, expect several more evolutions that will require you to recast yourself," said Dr. Glaser. There will also always be an evolution of IT-oriented senior leadership functions resulting in complementary chief information positions, he explains.

3. Positive relationships are the keys to success. CIOs' relationships with other executives will become increasingly important in the future, the panelists emphasized.

According to Ms. Hood, members of the leadership team need strong relationships and put effort into course correcting when relationships are shaky.

While CIOs' positive relationships with CFOs, CEOs CMOs and others are integral to achieving goals, CIOs often work most hand-in-hand with CMIOs.

"The CIO and CMIO have a very important relationship because the CIO may not understand everything that goes on in the hospital, while the CMIO is intimately aware of everything and can translate this information to the CIO and improve collaboration," Dr. Kleeburg said.

"Patients as customers" is yesterday's vision, according to Dr. Kleeburg. Today's vision, he contends, includes patients as collaborators with providers to create a care plan that will best suit their individual needs. Therefore, it is critical to provide opportunities for enhanced patient engagement through technology, as well as solutions to patients' technology issues. However, CIOs often do not have the clinical perspective or patient-facing experience to design these alone.

As more complementary, niche IT roles continue to emerge, such as chief of information security or chief of population health informatics, the functions of each will expand to address specific needs, while allowing enough overlap to maintain cohesion.

IT's growing presence in healthcare also affords it a greater influence over the organization's culture.

"The CIO has the ability to clearly state the vision for the organization demonstrating how the technology they are implementing realizes this vision, all the way from the C-suite to the frontlines staff," said Dr. Kleeburg.

Click here to view the recording of the webinar. Click here to download the webinar as a PDF.

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