UnityPoint Health's CIO on staying inspired, tackling COVID-19 vaccination technology challenges

Laura Smith has served as CIO of West Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health since 2016, and she was promoted from vice president to senior vice president early this year. 

She oversees the health system's IT and analytics division, which includes about 600 IT and analytics professionals.

Ms. Smith told Becker's Hospital Review she's passionate about empowering her team to serve the community. She shared her daily mantra, discussed challenges facing hospital CIOs and offered some advice for IT leaders.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is the biggest challenge you're facing right now as a female leader?

Laura Smith: Especially early in my career, I struggled with self-confidence. I would question myself and seek approval of others as a measure of my success. It wasn't fulfilling, and it fed into a lack of confidence. If I did have advice for other female leaders especially, I would encourage them to focus more on what makes you happy. It took some time for me to get there, but now that I feel like I'm there I have more confidence because I'm focusing on the things that are my defined measures of success. For me, that's making a difference in the community I serve and creating an environment where my team members can feel like they're making a difference as well.  

Q: How do you stay inspired on hard days?

LS: Hearing stories about how healthcare is making a difference in our patients' lives and being able to connect the dots between how our teams or technologies make a difference certainly helps. Then also hearing of our team members' successes and what they're proud of  — that gives me great satisfaction.

Q: What is your daily mantra?

LS: 'The hard is what makes it great.' The work we do is complex in a complex industry. That complexity makes it inherently hard. At the end of the day, the hard is what makes it great. 

Q: How is the technology side of UnityPoint's COVID-19 vaccine rollout progressing? How have you solved any glaring challenges or system glitches? 

LS: From a broader than IT perspective, we had a strategy of reaching all populations we serve, understanding that some populations have more access to technology than others. We had to have a flexible approach in how patients would ultimately be matched up or put on a schedule for vaccination. We had to do a multipronged approach, recognizing populations and patients we serve. The scheduling, the administration, the tracking is all technology-enabled, and some of the challenges with that have been the variation in different interpretations and groups that are eligible for different phases of the rollout. We've had to build our systems to accommodate that, and it's a complex build. We've overcome that by taking an agile approach with daily huddles. We're going to automate as much technology as possible, but we also recognize there is a subset of our population we need to reach out to in a more manual way, and that could be a phone call.

Q: What advice do you have for other hospital health IT leaders encountering technology challenges amid the pandemic? 

LS: My greatest career success is the team I've built. The team is passionate about healthcare. They're driven to achieve results, and just as important is their ability to lift each other up. When I think of all the challenges we have had or will have, there's no one else I would rather serve with. So, my advice would be having the right team, surrounding yourself with the right people, leaning on those team members. 


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