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10 key questions in assessing HIT consultants’ capabilities
Healthcare organizations often need outside help from a consultant who can offer expertise that internal staff may not have, says D’Arcy Guerin Gue, vice president of industry relations at Phoenix Health Systems, a consultancy. Outside experts bring objectivity, a broad frame of reference, best practice assessments, project management methodologies and knowledge transfer. When a consultant has completed the engagement, he or she should be leaving an internal staff that is ready to take over seamlessly because the consultant has trained the staff to do so, she advises. Here are 10 critical questions to ask consultant candidates.
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Why do you work in the healthcare IT industry? 
The candidate should be able to differentiate between the alternative industries—most of which are more lucrative for consultants—and indicate reasons for genuine interest, commitment and concern for healthcare. Passion defines the best work of most of us, and that includes these road warrior consultants. Identify that passion if it is there. If it isn’t there, beware.
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What methodologies do you use, and do you have samples?
Consultants should have examples of their approaches for situation review, problem analysis and recommended solutions. This is a no-brainer. If the candidate cannot detail the methodologies that would be applied to the engagement, you can have wonder whether he or she is going to come into your shop on a wing and a prayer. Claims of confidentiality should not override this request. The best consultants do not work on instinct alone or without methodical approaches and should be glad to provide “scrubbed” documentation.
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What are the greatest strengths you can offer?
This question sounds routine, but the answers could make or break your decision. Best answers should reference listening and questioning abilities; understanding of hospital environments; effective analytical skills, including drilling down to fine details without losing sight of the bigger picture; providing deliverables on time and within budget; the ability to relate well to staff at all levels; and knowledge of future trends. There can and should be a variety of other strengths, some of which may carry more weight. Asking for examples is important here; do not rely on generalizations or fuzzy talk.
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Where do you predict about the future of healthcare and healthcare IT?
It’s helpful to ask prospective consultants where they believe the industry is going in the next 10 years. If the candidate company or individual cannot verbalize an intelligent, logical big-picture analysis of healthcare over the coming years, you should question whether the consulting engagement will give you the benefit of deep knowledge of the industry, including new technologies, changing fee models, interoperability and population health goals, demographic impacts and more—all of which are changing rapidly. A good consultant should be able to relate important trends to a hospital’s business goals, as well as its information technology and operations.
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How do you think hospital IT issues and planning should relate to strategic goals?
The answer should clearly indicate that the consultant grasps the centrality of IT in many organizational strategies, and discuss how IT can further those goals and potentially reduce costs. Again, ask for examples.
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What is your experience in similar organizations with federal HIT initiatives and compliance issues?
If the candidate or consulting organization cannot be highly specific and describe their experience it depth, their qualifications are suspect. Federal initiatives like Meaningful Use and compliance requirements like HIPAA security affect every area of healthcare IT.
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In past engagements, how have you managed the fact that you are an outsider?
The mere presence of an outside consultant can be threatening to an organization’s existing staff, and that can hinder open discussion of existing IT issues and problems, especially some that may be hidden. The candidate should be able to provide examples of past successes that have included creating staff trust and willingness to collaborate on finding solutions.
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Can the consultant offer a proposal focused on well-defined business outcomes?
The proposal should not be simply task-oriented, e.g. doing surveys and interviews, offering answers to questions, or outlining options. In turn, it is your obligation to disclose the business outcomes you need to achieve, along with related issues and factors (e.g. budgetary constraints, future plans and more).
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What questions do you have of the HIT executives?
One of the two most important jobs of a consultant is to ask questions—the other is to collaborate on answers. The consulting candidate should be able to ask myriad intelligent and intuitive questions.
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What will need to happen to make this engagement a success?
If a candidate’s answer does not include working with key staff, including executive staff, and being able to collaborate with them, be wary.  External candidates cannot handle a consulting project on their own: they need employee and executive input to genuinely understand the organization’s challenges, goals, budgets, resources, existing IT infrastructure and more.