WakeMed CMIO Dr. Neal Chawla's team goals for 2019: Training, analytics & patient functionality

Neal Chawla, MD, chief medical information officer at Raleigh, N.C.-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals, discusses his plans to improve patient care in 2019 and how some of healthcare's biggest needs require little technology.

Responses are lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Question: How did you become a CMIO? What is your background and what advice do you have for aspiring CMIOs?

Dr. Neal Chawla: I became a CMIO after 10 years of doing IT work — from the clinical care side and from a systemwide standpoint — using data to make both clinical and operational decisions. Starting with an informatics fellowship and formal education, I slowly shifted my focus from clinical care to IT. It was helpful to learn some concepts, but the adage that you learn a lot more by doing still rings true.

My advice to aspiring CMIOs is to grind it out. Get some education on IT and leadership, but make sure to also get involved in IT at your organization and work through issues with your teams and co-workers. You may not be compensated much at first, but once you start and continue to prove yourself, the opportunities will often follow. Make sure your heart is in it and that you're doing it for the right reasons — better health for patients and leveraging technology to make a positive impact. My last, and most challenging, piece of advice is to stay clinically active. It will keep you honest and maintain your street cred among physician colleagues.

Q: What is the vision for your team in 2019? How will you approach your role and meeting your goals?

NC: I see several important, big-ticket items for WakeMed's 2019 forecast to improve care for our patients. These are my top three:

1. Training. We have a lot of functionality, but a lot of folks are not aware of all the features they can already take advantage of and access to make their lives easier. We still have some clunky technological aspects to fix, but we can get a lot of mileage out of educating our colleagues about existing tools. It helps everyone be more proficient and, in turn, improves patient care.

2. Analytics. We know there is a lot of data filing through our systems, but are we really tapping into the business and clinical intelligence that this data can provide? From the tools to the process to data literacy, there is a lot we will continue to do to capture meaningful and actionable data and create better outcomes. Turn data into action.

3. Patient functionality. We always put our patients first and will continue our focus on tools directed at improving the patient experience and every interaction with our system. We have an oversight group to coordinate these continued efforts, whether it's making it easier for patients to schedule appointments, better understand their discharge instructions or to send us data from outside our walls.

As our governance gets stronger, we are building out a three-year clinical road map to guide our focus and keep WakeMed aligned to meet its mission and strategic goals.

Q: Where do you see the biggest need for innovation to improve the healthcare system in the future?

NC: Ironically, I believe the biggest needs are some of the most low-tech — it's training, engagement and change management. Across the healthcare industry, IT teams are developing better engines to put better functionality out there quickly, but for multiple reasons our end users are not able to broadly adopt technology as fast as we can push it out. It would be a huge win to figure out how to make the transition from new functionality to true adoption more timely and effective.

Q: Which apps and technologies do you find most helpful, and which do you think will be passing fads?

NC: I am a believer in the Gartner Innovation Hype Cycle, and I believe most of the technology goes through this trend and cycle. Large EHRs are constantly increasing functionality and built-in integration, making these areas tougher to compete with. Apps and technologies in spaces where large EHRs won't be able to develop themselves will have a better chance of being successful.

To learn more about clinical informatics and health IT, register for the Becker's Hospital Review 2nd Annual Health IT + Clinical Leadership Conference May 2-4, 2019 in Chicago. Click here to learn more and register.

To participate in future Becker's Q&As, contact Jackie Drees at jdrees@beckershealthcare.com.

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