Healthcare IT executives and thought leaders are making a transition within their roles. In the past, they’ve been called upon to manage very technical responsibilities—in the last decade, that’s primarily involved getting electronic health records systems rolled out.

Now, these executives are taking it up a notch. They’re being asked to keep increasingly complex information technology systems running, as well as to help fulfill the missions of healthcare organizations.

That’s a common theme among those named to Health Data Management’s 2018 third annual list of the Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT. A total of 50 leaders in healthcare information technology were named to the list. To determine which executives to honor, HDM solicited nominations from its readers; HDM editors then submitted their own recommendations, based on their knowledge of the industry. The editorial staff then reviewed each candidates’ qualifications and decided on the final list.

The roles of healthcare IT leaders have expanded—they’re increasingly demanding, growing in complexity.

The speed of innovation has risen dramatically, contends Sheree McFarland, a repeat honoree. “Business leaders and consumers are more educated than ever, with increasing expectations,” says McFarland, CIO of the West Florida Division for HCA Healthcare. “In response, technology companies are advancing their capabilities rapidly.”

Sheree McFarland
Sheree McFarland

That’s a challenge, too, McFarland says, because there’s an growing number of solutions, both products and platforms. “The proliferation of IT can lead to multiple solutions trying to solve similar problems, creating a more fragmented user experience and a more complex IT environment.”

The rising number of healthcare IT solutions is adding challenges for IT executives who are trying to make diverse systems exchange information and work together, says Theresa Meadows, senior vice president and CIO at Cook Children’s Health Care System, Fort Worth, Texas.

“Now that the majority of healthcare organizations have EHRs deployed, the focus is how do we ensure interoperability with other third-party systems and other organizations,” Meadows says. “The ability to have reliable information about the patient across care transitions is extremely important. We also now have the ability to begin using the data collected by the EHR to make strategic decisions that will impact patient outcomes.”

Deanna Wise, executive vice president and CIO at Dignity Health, believes similarly. “A CIO’s job isn’t just about deploying technology—I’m always looking for creative and innovative ways to accomplish ambitious goals that serve to improve the quality and safety of patient care,” she says. “Our IT team continues to create new strategies to meet our most foundational technical and strategic challenges.”

Those diverse challenges mean increasingly incorporating new types of technologies. “Data management, analytics and data governance are going to be skills that all CIOs must master over the next several years,” Meadows says.

Data science capabilities will grow in importance, McFarland asserts. CIOs and the thought leaders that support them will need to understand how initiatives such as the clinical data warehouse and predictive analytics can serve broader organizational initiatives, she says. “HIT leaders must be able to produce rapid value as the landscape of products and business needs change rapidly.”

HIT executives—and the vendors and consultants that support them—also are under pressure to provide a measurable return on investment for technology, she adds. “Although technology can be applied to various business challenges, as financial pressure is applied, it’s important that IT investments yield clinical and financial benefits.”

HIT executives also must expand their skill sets to deal with cybersecurity threats, working to inform the executive suite of emerging challenges as well as ensure that security professionals are in place to protect the information systems on which healthcare organizations are increasingly dependent.

“The threats against healthcare organizations will continue,” Meadows says. “It is important that CIOs take an active role in educating their peers, the board of directors and the organization around cybersecurity. Risk management and cybersecurity incident preparedness are key skills for CIOs.”

Powerful IT executives and thought leaders also will find themselves communicating with more diverse audiences, and being called upon to lead larger workforces. Emerging leaders will need to develop skills to manage workers in complex healthcare environments, the executives believe.

“The modern CIO must function like a COO who oversees the end-to-end daily operations and engages with the business to prepare for the future,” says Wise. “I’ve found that employees create the best solutions and make their most significant contributions when they’re in the right work environment, one where they are trusted to perform and they feel valued and empowered. One of the most important parts of my job is to foster that environment by consistently sharing the IT strategy and the big picture.”

And that bleeds over into a renewed focus on the “customers” of healthcare IT, who are the front-line users, says Pamela Saechow, associate CIO at the Cleveland Clinic.

“We’re moving into digitization to create a seamless and optimal caregiver experience, as well as one for our patients,” she says. “My areas of focus now are to build a high-performance team, provide excellent customer service and increase velocity—focus on speed to value. And there’s a renewed focus on removing complexity and going to simplicity. This needs to be a mutually beneficial partnership with strategic and tactical partners to drive value, create standardization and automation, and reduce costs.”

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