The life of a healthcare CIO: Sparrow Health System's Thomas Bres

In collaboration with CHIME, Becker's Hospital Review's "Life of a Healthcare CIO" series features leading hospital and health system CIOs from across the country who are sharing their experiences, best practices and challenges.

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An interview with Thomas Bres, senior vice president, chief administrative officer and CIO of Sparrow Health System in Lansing, Mich. (Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Question: You've been with Sparrow Health System for about six years in a CIO role, but it looks like in January your title changed to chief Bres Tomadministrative officer. Can you talk about how your job at Sparrow has changed, and the new responsibilities you've taken on?

Thomas Bres: I started at Sparrow Health System as CIO and earlier this year took on the role of chief administrative officer. I still also am the CIO, but now in addition to IT, I'm also responsible for facilities development and maintenance, clinical engineering, support services, legal, risk management and many other administrative functions.

We've had some terrific success in recent years with information technology. The most significant event has been the implementation of our enterprise-wide EHR. We deployed the Epic EHR applications beginning in 2010, and the biggest milestone came in 2012 when we turned it on in four hospital locations. We are now using it at more than 30 ambulatory practice sites, in addition to all of our hospital locations.

Q: In your time with Sparrow Health, what has been your biggest accomplishment? 

TB: Certainly from the project perspective is the Epic EHR implementation. We are very proud of how successful it was and continues to be, but I think there are other aspects of my time at Sparrow I'm also very proud of. As a team, we've assembled a customer service culture and mentality, and the way we've been able to deploy technology directly to patients are all things I'm proud of. There are 24,000 patients in the mid Michigan area that are using our patient portal — My Sparrow — and we get positive feedback on that portal and the capabilities it provides. Patients can use MySparrow to view their lab results, schedule their next appointment, exchange messages with their doctor or just view their records — all things which enable patients to be more active participants in the care process. When you can deploy technology in ways that directly impact patients, it's something all of our IT professionals take pride in.

Q: What do you see as your biggest misstep or mistake?

TB: I don't know if I would call it a mistake, but you always would like to do things faster. Healthcare as an industry still lags behind other industries in terms of interoperability, to move health information from one application to another, making health information more accessible to patients; those tools that allow patients to take more active role. These are things other industries like finance and retail have been doing well for years. We're catching up in healthcare, but you'd like to be deploying these new technologies faster so we can do even more to improve the health of our communities.

Q: In the past month or so, what project has taken up the majority of your time?

TB: One of them is not technology related, and instead is in the facilities development part of our business. We've launched a significant master facilities plan over the last 12 months and just finalized the budget for a couple of the largest projects. We're building a new state-of-the-art cancer center on our downtown Lansing campus, and will begin construction early next year. It's amazing the number of people who have stepped forward and want to be a part of the investment and this project. Cancer has impacted so many people in so many ways that it's easy to see how this development will make a difference in lives of our communities.

In information technology, the most recent news is Sparrow was just awarded HIMSS Level 7 achievement for EHR adoption. Only 180 other hospitals in the country have earned this distinction, which puts Sparrow in the top 4 percent of healthcare providers in the country for information technology utilization.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you're facing right now? 

TB: The biggest challenge is leveraging our data and getting meaningful information in the hands of our clinicians and operational leaders. We want to do even more with the EHR foundation we've put in place, and that means mining data from it in new ways to provide added clinical decision support as well as help us enter the world of population health management. The future of healthcare is in improving the health of your community rather than just caring for sick patients. As our industry transitions in this direction, business intelligence will become the key differentiator.

Q: What is one lesson you've learned during your career that you'd like to share with other CIOs?

TB: The first thing I thnk is important to all CIOs is to have that customer service mentality. We have to hink of physicians, patients, nurses and all caregivers as internal customers and people we want to ensure are always satisfied with the value they're getting from IT. If you think about departments as customers and focus on the value delivered, that angle goes a long way to IT being successful.

More CIO profiles:

CIO Marc Chasin: Pursing interoperability for quality care
CIO Joel Vengco: A leader driving IT partnerships
CIO Pamela McNutt: A 19-year career in health IT

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