An expanding role for healthcare CIOs [Sponsored]

Chief Information Officers (CIO) play an invaluable role within the healthcare system and are the key decision makers when it comes to an organization’s end user. In recent years, we have seen the role of the CIO expand beyond automating and digitizing processes for providers and employees to focusing on the consumer. Small and large organizations alike are building solutions and redefining the patient experience. Healthcare CIOs are a crucial partner to move towards a more patient-centric care system. 

I recently interviewed Tressa Springmann, SVP and CIO at LifeBridge Health, to discuss how the pandemic has accelerated progress within their organization, how CIOs are redefining digital access for consumers and why it’s so important to ensure that the CIO has a seat at the table whenever an organization is evaluating new partnerships or platforms. 

Chris Catallo (CC): Tell us a bit about yourself and your role with LifeBridge Health.

Tressa Springmann (TS): I’m the CIO at LifeBridge Health, which does about $2 billion in revenue, and is one of the largest, most comprehensive integrated delivery networks in Maryland. LifeBridge has five care hospitals as well as a number of joint ventures that represent many different parts of the care continuum, including long-term care, assisted living, urgent care, outpatient pharmacies and a few hundred physicians in various practices around the community. 

Maryland is unique in that our hospitals are on a waiver for Medicare, so they get a fixed payment each year for reimbursement. This has encouraged some innovation and investments that other parts of the nation haven’t yet seen, because they’re still going for volume and we’re really being challenged to go for value. We’ve had some benefit from that, and it will be interesting to see if our successes here are seen as innovative enough to suggest that the rest of the country might move in a direction similar to what’s happened here in Maryland. 

I’ve worked with LifeBridge Health for 10 years. I think what you’ll find in most large provider organizations these days is the executive overseeing information services. Although they may have a technical background, as I do, we usually have responsibility for a lot of non-technical, more functional or clinical areas.  I also oversee our telehealth program, Health Information Management (HIM), and our call centers.

CC: What have been a couple of the key initiatives for LifeBridge since the pandemic hit in March? What did that do to the standard rollout of some important initiatives for your organization? 

TS: I think this is old news, but the genie’s out of the bottle with telehealth. I’m also responsible for our telehealth group, not only from a technology perspective, but also, we’re in the process of actually building a service line around it. The technology has been there, but without the appropriate easing of regulations and financial reimbursement, things just didn’t happen. There wasn’t a burning platform for it, but I think we’ve certainly demonstrated to the industry that it wasn’t about the tech. We went from 12 virtual visits in February 2020 to 20,000 in March. 

Luckily, because of our value-based approach 1.5 years ago, we already had a goal for telehealth: we made the investment, and we deployed the devices. However,  our physicians didn’t have a compelling reason or use case or, frankly, a method of reimbursement, to get their job done, so, they didn’t use it. Getting the public and our providers more acquainted with digital ways to connect with our community, accelerated, blossomed and ignited as a result of that. I think it’s been a tremendous catalyst and accelerator. 

CC: Were there things along the way that you were working on that you had to put on hold that you’re looking now in 2021 to get back on track?

TS: That’s a really good question. I think everything’s stalled, right? We’re in a second pretty big COVID-19 surge right now where it’s just about getting through the day. I think for me the challenge has been that I’m a strategist. My job is to make sure that I’m working over the next three-to-four-year horizon so that I am preparing the track in front of the train and what I believe needs to happen to make our organization successful. This past year has been about tactical execution. You don’t know if your organizations will have enough PPE (personal protective equipment), so partner with Under Armour and buy a bunch of sewing machines and make your own. 

We’re pretty proud of that because we don’t have a lot of excess caregiving capacity. Our units are full, and we don’t want any of those caregivers away from the bedside right now. When you asked specifically about projects, I’m pulling out our list of strategic investments that the overall strategy had slated. We’re blowing the dust off them and beginning to look at them again. I’m grateful for it, but we really have been in very tactical execution mode. Some of the things we’ve tactically executed on, include distributing the vaccine in Maryland. It’s not identified whether LifeBridge Health is going to be a mass vaccination site for the public. If we are, we need to take into account how we leverage technology like our customer relationship management platform (CRM) to grab all of those potential new patients to our intake funnel who may not have otherwise come to LifeBridge Health. How do we make sure that while we’re reacting tactically, that we’re doing it with a broader strategy in mind?

CC: How would you define the digital front door? Do you believe that the initiatives you’re working on, especially in regard to the digital front door and the growth of digital, are the same as what you’re hearing from your counterparts and CIOs across the nation right now?

TS: I think it’s like any other change management exercise right now — it’s in a norming and forming phase. My peers and I are having a lot of conversations about it. A year ago, it was, ‘let’s just define digital.’ I’ve been in IT for 25 years and if that’s not digital, what is? More specifically in healthcare, let’s be honest — those of us in a CIO role do not excel at supporting our patients’ or our consumers’ use of technology. We just haven’t done much of that. 

Twenty years ago, we automated our business processes. Fifteen years ago, we started automating our clinical processes. We understand supporting users, but these users work for us. These aren’t users running around, out in the community, connecting with us and trying to remain engaged through their whole healthcare lifecycle through digital means. That’s been a scary proposition and you’ll find in some organizations that the Chief Digital Officer has no connection to marketing and no connection to the CIO.

In other organizations, like ours, the IT executive is absolutely becoming a critical partner within the organization. Not only do we have technology experience and the ability to have a bigger picture view of the organizational needs, but also we work collaboratively and partner with other departments throughout the organization, such as marketing. 

CC: How do you play a role in helping your marketing team or even the strategy teams in selection of platforms or tools?

TS: I have final signature authority over any IT investment. If you don’t include me at the table, I’m going to be a barrier. As a leader, I need to be very open and say, ‘Get me involved early,’ so I can be a partner, be an advocate and be aligned instead of being that 11th hour pain in your back because there’s been no security risk assessment and no plan for IS involvement as perhaps the vendors you brought forward have said, you really don’t need IT. You really have no one who’s talked about conversions integration, API or digitization. Even if you take the consumer as the audience out of it, at LifeBridge Health, I have 200 IT professionals who are already digitizing employee experience and provider experience. By digitizing, I mean not only from the electronic medical record (EMR), but also from smartphone-based applications for alerts, notifications and secure texts. 

What we really lack and need to do better at is partnering with our patient experience and marketing teams to focus on the consumers, the end users, right? How do we create that cradle to grave experience for patients and their family that’s omni-channel that might just be in-person or over the phone? We want that experience to allow our CRM to help us capture those preferences and take advantage of what do we know their care patterns are, their personas and the way they want to interact with us. And then really allow that along with the things that you’ve inferred AI, machine learning, building intelligence into these activities so that they’re not so cumbersome.

If we have someone who our EMR has identified through a registry as lacking their annual Medicare wellness exam, that ought to be a pretty seamless electronic execution that allows our CRM to extend a digital reach to this individual and get them in to visit a provider. There’s so much of this that remains an opportunity just by making sure that our CRM becomes a significant and appropriate consumerfacing workflow rules platform in our IT application portfolio, very similar to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software for a business manager or any EMR, which is providerfacing.

CC: I appreciate that, because it sounds like you’re definitely thinking about the consumer experience and also have worked through with constituencies within your organization on what the ideal consumer experience can be. In doing so, do you have a preference of tools when organizations or vendors talk to you about a platform versus a point solution? For instance, are you a platform type of person or just solve the problem?

TS: I love everything to be addressed by platform. It’s really important to define the vision and boundaries of what you want your platform to be, and to also not oversell what it shouldn’t be. People in my seat are just as appreciative to know what your tools will not become as opposed to what they will become. Some of the ambiguity in our industry is that there are so many products that start morphing into different areas of the application ecosystem that it’s like, What are you anymore?

The platform play is really advantageous and in my own philosophy and that of our healthcare system, I’ve been very intentional. We have all had to make point solution investments. However, with platform partners, we are intentional to know and understand their vision.  As soon as they’re able to get equivalent functionality, I would much rather replace my point solutions for a very deep partner who can then understand how to raise all ships when we talk about an end-to-end engagement strategy. The economic advantages are certainly also assumed/implied.

CC: To end our conversation, if you could give any advice on ways to better partner with you, people in your role and with organizations like LifeBridge Health, what would it be? 

TS: First, please be patient with us because this is not an area of strength. There are a lot of people who are in an area where they don’t have demonstrated experience or comfort and they may come across as having bravado or a defensive nature. We’re just learning. We are struggling to figure out how to bring new concepts such as net promoter scores into healthcare. It sounds easy, but it’s not. We’re dealing with a lot of legacy mindsets and a lot of very ingrained ideas that consumer engagement is just your patient portal. We all know that if that’s your strategy, you need to find some partners to help you grow a little bit in that area and quickly. Also, understand your internal customers. Like any group, organizational dynamics may be at play. Really get to know who’s involved. Aim to develop enough of a rapport and a relationship to figure out how to advance the vocabulary of the person you’re partnering with and how to help them and their organization most effectively further their organizational strategies.

Photo: yoshinao motoi, Getty Images

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