Healthcare IT: raising the bar on wellness
Whether streamlining processes or providing new mobile health delivery solutions, healthcare IT pros work in a swiftly changing field
Evolving opportunities and demanding regulations require continued learning throughout a healthcare IT career
By Jon Boroshok
From the Affordable Care Act to telemedicine, healthcare is changing and technology’s role is growing. Access to data, security of patient information, and new tools for providing care are some driving forces. Technology solutions contribute to cost containment and improve healthcare at the same time.
Changes in technology, new regulations, stringent standards and aggressive cost control efforts have created both challenges and opportunities for healthcare IT professionals.
Many of the experienced healthcare IT professionals interviewed for this article emphasize the importance of soft skills in this fast-changing environment: public speaking, communications, critical thinking, and the ability to envision how the technology they design directly impacts customers and patients. As one industry pro says, healthcare today is “high tech and high touch.”
Faye Sahai directs tech innovation at Kaiser Permanente
As a young woman, Faye Sahai helped her parents, both doctors and sole practitioners from Thailand, integrate computers into their practices. Sahai enjoyed the business side of healthcare, but also wanted more direct contact with people.
She earned her BA in economics and psychology from Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA) in 1990, and went to work as a bank analyst. After a year and a half, she found the job wasn’t fulfilling.
She changed jobs and began working at the Gateway Pacific Foundation on international nonprofit programs with the United Nations. “That job was fulfilling, but didn’t pay the rent,” she says. She decided to go back to college, earning her MBA from the Anderson School of Management at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1995.
Since then, Sahai has worked as both an employee and consultant leading large-scale change and performance improvement initiatives at companies such as Blue Shield, Deloitte, Charles Schwab, Disney, HP, Toyota and now Kaiser Permanente. She has managed teams working on large-scale system implementation, IT governance and decision-making bodies, as well as $80 million programs and portfolios.
A Permanente position
In 2006, she joined Kaiser Permanente full time. She’s now the vice president of innovation and advanced technology, part of the company’s Digital Health Technology & Strategic Initiatives organization in Oakland, CA. Her team includes physicians, nurses, a national innovation-hunter network, and innovation and mobility laboratory teams.
Sahai identifies and assesses new and emerging technology and trends in healthcare delivery. She oversees the board of Kaiser Permanente’s internal innovation fund for technology, which provides funding for innovative technology projects within the company.
“We’re at an amazing time where technology and healthcare are going to make such a difference,” Sahai observes.
Sahai is the IT partner to Kaiser Permanente’s Sidney R. Garfield Center for Health Care Innovation, a 37,000-square-foot simulated care delivery environment and laboratory for testing new technology, designs, and ideas to keep Kaiser Permanente on the cutting edge of healthcare.
She also serves as president of KP Women in Technology, an internal networking and mentoring group. Sahai is concerned that women are not staying in technology and science. As part of its community outreach, KP Women in Technology hosts middle school science fairs and provides mentoring. Sahai calls this her proudest accomplishment.
The people, the mission, the diversity
“One of the greatest assets of Kaiser Permanente is its people. They share the mission of providing high-quality, affordable healthcare services and improving the health of members and the communities we serve,” says Sahai. “I have found mentors and people who willingly offer words of wisdom and support.”
“Kaiser Permanente’s physicians, employees and membership are among the most diverse in the nation. Diversity and inclusion has always been a priority and is integrated throughout the many departments across Kaiser Permanente,” says Christine Talbot, vice president of human resources and national diversity. “Kaiser Permanente is committed to creating a workplace and environment that draws in talented and dedicated employees like Faye Sahai and creates a space for them to flourish.”
The high-tech future of healthcare
Sahai is excited about healthcare of the future, looking at alternative and mobile care delivery models via social media, sensors, mobility, telehealth, and even computer gaming. It’s about “healthcare where you are, not just in the hospital or doctor’s office,” she says. Mobility is key, in the form of mobile application development, mobile device attachments for phones, sophisticated sensors and smart environments.
As technology advances over time, the size of datasets used by healthcare organizations will also increase. Sahai sees new technologies and techniques to capture value from big data, including advanced analysis of multi-dimensional modalities and advanced data modeling and simulation technologies.
“The healthcare industry and technology are changing so rapidly you need agility to keep the pace as well as to continually learn and adjust,” says Sahai.
She adds that with electronic medical records and smart sensor environments, “there is a tsunami of data coming toward us 24/7. We turn data into actionable insights through analytics/informatics.”
Despite the ongoing “tsunami,” Sahai says she manages to keep a good work-life balance. “I have a family with two kids who I love dearly and a very active job that I really enjoy,” she says. “I have had to define my values and priorities and make choices based on those values. My husband and I partner closely to manage the family.”
She says she is blessed with a great network that helps at home and a great team at work to manage workload, projects and initiatives.
Her current projects at work include researching, identifying and prototyping the delivery of total health through hospitals, clinics, homes and virtually. The future of healthcare is “high tech and high touch,” says Sahai.
Baxter’s Ritu Shah is an R&D portfolio and project manager
Ritu Shah recently became director of R&D portfolio management for healthcare product manufacturer Baxter International (Deerfield, IL). It’s a new role for her. Previously, she was IT director for the company’s BioScience business.
Shah grew up in Chicago, where her father is a mechanical engineer. She also loved chemistry, and the lure of chemical engineering and its many opportunities drew her in.
During college, Shah worked in a factory that manufactured gaskets, and interned at Xerox. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN) in 1998 with a BS in chemical engineering, with curriculum similar to pre-med coursework. After graduation, she went to work in healthcare R&D for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), where she remained for eleven years.
A rewarding opportunity
Shah wanted to stay in healthcare, and had always admired Baxter’s work in chronic and acute medical conditions like kidney disease, immune disorders and hemophilia. She eventually applied for an opening, and was hired into an IT role in November 2009.
In her new portfolio and project management role, she facilitates collaboration among R&D, manufacturing, quality, supply chain and commercial teams to support effective product development and product launches.
Her previous job, she explains, was to make technology work for the sales team. She supported sales, marketing, customer operations, and finance with sales reporting, marketing analytics, customer relationship management, and e-business solutions.
Among her achievements was the implementation of a new CRM system which included process re-engineering, data migration, and sales optimization. Shah also implemented new digital strategies for sales and marketing, yielding significant savings and efficiencies.
Shah likes being considered a partner in an organization that makes a difference in people’s health. She provides tools and apps, and partners with Baxter’s subject matter experts to develop new channels for information sharing with healthcare providers. “The technology really helps, but information must be accurate and up-to-date,” says Shah.
As the industry continues to evolve technologically, Shah sees a demand for people with analytical skills. “It’s not just about coding. It’s understanding your customers’ needs and being able to provide solutions,” says Shah. “Soft skills are important, especially people skills. Relationships and networking are crucial.”
Shah looks forward to continued impact and learning in her new role; she sees great opportunities at Baxter. Outside work, she is involved with the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. Internally, Shah serves as the global inclusion representative for IT, which focuses on increasing inclusion and diversity at Baxter.
Jeanne Mason, corporate vice president of human resources at Baxter, explains, “We’ve made our focus on global inclusion a long-term priority, since an inclusive workplace is critical to our success and to employee satisfaction. We have a number of activities to help Baxter recruit, hire and retain talent from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. We are committed to a culture where all employees can collaborate and work together effectively.”
Rita Miller streamlines and advances operations at Coventry Healthcare
Rita Miller is an IT project manager for health insurance and managed care company Coventry Healthcare (Bethesda, MD). But she didn’t arrive on a typical track. Miller graduated from the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA) in 1995 with a BA in history and fine arts, with a minor in pre-law.
She decided against law school, and instead earned an MS in public management/finance from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) in 1997. After graduation, she worked for KPMG Consulting (Washington, DC), trying to improve efficiencies for the U.S. Postal Service.
After three years at KPMG, she accepted a position at health insurance company Highmark in Pittsburgh, and spent the next three years working in membership staff services and HIPAA regulation compliance.
In 2006, she attended a job fair at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. She met Coventry recruiters at the event, and was impressed by the training and project management opportunities they offered.
She’s worked in Coventry’s Pittsburgh office for almost seven years, starting as a business development consultant. She helped Coventry develop a team care approach for senior citizens, reducing medical loss ratios while increasing care.
She moved into medical management, and through technology, was able to streamline the process to approve or deny claims, eliminating mountains of paper letters. She was then promoted to senior business analyst consultant.
Today, as an IT project manager, Miller works on an enhanced case management project, designed to ensure that Coventry members, many of whom are on Medicare or Medicaid, receive the support they need. “It makes sure the right people provide the right care,” says Miller.
Miller’s favorite tasks are these special projects. She also enjoys the diversity at her company.
“At Coventry, diversity is a recognition of all the differences among workers and the variety of perspectives and values. Managing diversity involves recognizing and respecting those differences, and making them a powerful resource to achieve our business goals,” says Anna Gill, Coventry’s vice president of human resources and employee development. “We believe that fostering an inclusive workforce is not only the right thing, it is also critical to maintaining a competitive advantage.”
Heather Lapolt oversees infrastructure tech at Aetna
Heather Lapolt has worked for insurance company Aetna (Hartford, CT) since graduating from college in 1997. Lapolt earned her BS in psychology with a minor in human development from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT). After graduation, she sent out resumes focusing on project management and human resource jobs.
She was interviewed by Aetna’s head of data services, who was looking for people to help create robust IT processes as part of a new department. She was hired, and spent most of the next fifteen years on the infrastructure side, which included disaster recovery and technology implementation.
Now infrastructure technology services department head, Lapolt has eight direct reports and a department of 140 people. Her team oversees strategic and operational planning, working with thirty project managers.
She’s also responsible for client asset management for the enterprise, and for disaster recovery, making sure that Aetna’s IT systems deliver business continuity.
Her job proved particularly challenging in November 2012 when Superstorm Sandy hit the northeast. Aetna has a large telecommuter population, and many of those workers lost phone and Internet access. Lapolt helped them find workspaces where they had power, and where they could also shower and eat.
Her psychology background enhances her skill set. “It is not just about providing solutions,” says Lapolt. “Understanding and meeting customer needs is important.”
When Lapolt first started with Aetna, access to data was more limited. Today, data access is taken for granted. The question now is how to use it in a meaningful way for customers, with no downtime and within regulations. “It’s not good enough to just say it works,” observes Lapolt.
Lapolt likes the challenges of her job, and has undertaken additional responsibilities. She is part of the corporate crisis management team, and a technology compliance officer.
She calls Aetna a very positive, diverse organization. Her immediate manager and the EVP of operations are both female, which Lapolt says is unusual for IT, though she’s never felt that gender matters. Earlier in her career, she had supportive male managers.
“Our company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion helps us respond to changes in the marketplace, where the challenge of continually increasing our value requires creativity and insights that only a diverse workforce can deliver,” says Glenn Winfree, Aetna’s director of diversity. “We harness the diversity of our employees to gain a better understanding of the communities we serve, and provide customers with responsive, tailored products and services.”
Lapolt is now project management certified, and looks forward to a long career with Aetna.
Robin Landeck promotes engineering excellence at GE Healthcare
Robin Landeck didn’t know what she wanted to do when she grew up. Her aunt advised her to develop business skills, so she took accounting and typing classes in high school. After graduating from high school she worked in a clerical role for the Illinois Department of Revenue.
She became the administrator for a Wang operations system at work, followed by a Sperry Univac telecom system. All this “new” technology provided her with on-the-job tech experience, and she realized she wanted a career in engineering.
She decided to formalize her education. She attended college while working full time, and in 1991 earned a BS in computer science from Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago, IL).
Her first technical job, which she started even before she finished her degree, was in tech support for U.S. Robotics (Skokie, IL), as the company’s 250th employee. She was a technical call analyst, where she “took angry customer calls.” She did that for a year before moving into field engineering for pre-sales, where she “got yelled at by customers in person,” she remembers wryly.
As the company grew and acquired other organizations, Landeck began to focus on product testing and streamlining processes, as well as helping the different company cultures work together. She was part of the engineering services group’s growth from two to 120 people.
When her frequent business travel became a burden, she moved into management. But U.S. Robotics was later acquired and her job, then at the director level, was eliminated. She was asked to stay on as a consultant.
By 2005, many of her coworkers had left, and some wound up at GE Healthcare (Chicago, IL). “They recruited me to join the company, and I took a small step backward to become engineering manager. But it was well worth it to get into healthcare,” says Landeck.
For the next five years, Landeck had increasing responsibilities capitalizing on her skills as a “fix it” expert. In 2011, there was a management change in GE Healthcare’s IT shop. It became a more centralized organization under the CTO, and Landeck was named GE Healthcare’s general manager of engineering operational excellence.
“My job is to drive best practices for our engineering teams, using Agile, Scrum, and an organized engineering tool kit. My global team supports 1,500 software engineers, and makes sure that quality is built in up front rather than after. This makes the development process much shorter, and results in products that meet all our customers’ expectations.”
She’s especially proud to have reduced some build times from three to four days down to ten minutes. This methodology has business benefits, as the process of testing, which includes verification, validation, and performance/usability testing, is a huge investment.
Landeck doesn’t note any gender-related challenges at GE Healthcare, but is sensitive to the fact that there are more males than females in her field. But “at GE, I’ve seen some great women do very well,” she says.
Balancing the healthcare IT playing field
Angela Knight helps find those women, as diversity and university recruitment talent acquisition leader for GE Healthcare in Waukesha, WI. She worries that few women and minorities are enrolled in STEM, and the pipeline is small.
Knight says she has to get creative to find candidates, and points to Software Edison, a summer internship program for aspiring software engineers that can convert undergrads into full-time professionals. The program takes place in Burlington, VT and Barrington, IL, and many candidates are hired after they finish their degrees.
“At GE, diversity is about the power of the mix,” says Knight.
Key skills at GE Healthcare
Knight says that the top programming languages she looks for in prospective hires are C#, C++, C, Rhapsody, and VxWorks. She seeks professionals who can analyze data and summarize it to fit a solution.
On Landeck’s team, engineers need to understand the user experience, and keep pace with the customer. Customer feedback should occur during development.
“Upcoming IT professionals need to keep up on tech trends and languages. Knowing development methodology to ensure the code or product is usable at the end is a must. IT today is implementing test-driven development. We don’t want engineers sitting around waiting for a finished build to test,” says Landeck.
Her success in leading teams to create excellent products is evident, and with that comes great job satisfaction. Landeck calls herself an enabler. “I love my job,” she declares. “I bring teams together and teach them.”
Betty A. Hutchins provides IT leadership at Mayo Clinic and beyond
Betty Hutchins earned a 1985 AS in information systems magna cum laude from Chattanooga State Technical Community College (Chattanooga, TN), and a 1990 BS in management cum laude and 1992 MBA in marketing management from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
She received a managed healthcare professional (MHP) certification from the Academy for Healthcare Management in 1998, and an IT master certification from Auburn University (Auburn, AL) in 2007. Both have been instrumental in her career. “I believe that advancement happens when opportunity and preparation intersect,” says Hutchins. “The opportunity has to exist but we must be prepared when the opportunity presents itself.”
Most of her career has been in healthcare. Hutchins’ first job out of college was as a programmer trainee for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee in Chattanooga. She was promoted to programmer, then systems analyst with the responsibilities of a project manager.
In 1998, Hutchins moved to Rochester, MN and began working as a project manager for the Mayo Clinic in laboratory and pathology systems. She completed her project management professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2001.
Hutchins moved to the Mayo Integrated Clinical System (MICS) division in 2004, still doing project management work. In 2011, the unit manager transferred to a new unit and Hutchins was selected to fill the IT unit manager position, mentored by her previous manager.
Her unit serves as a center of excellence for the management and delivery of projects within the division. “I love the growth and maturity of the MICS PMO since I have taken over as unit manager,” says Hutchins. “We have done tremendous work on our metrics and on the dashboards to support the two portfolios that we have responsibility for.”
Her unit’s annual budget allows project managers to grow their skills and acquire the necessary professional development units to maintain their PMI certifications. Hutchins’ challenge is being prepared to let her staff go on to better opportunities.
Leadership in diversity
When she moved to Rochester, Hutchins worked with a small group to start a chapter of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA). The Southern Minnesota chapter of BDPA was chartered in 1999 and has provided great opportunities to the students of Rochester ever since. Hutchins received the National BDPA President’s Award in 2005 and 2007.
Hutchins and other Mayo Clinic employees in Rochester decided to find a way for people of the same culture or ethnicity to share information with each other, leading to what is now the African Descendants Support Network, a Mayo employee resource group. It’s just one of many diversity groups at the Mayo Clinic.
Diversity at the Mayo Clinic is not just part of HR, says Dr Sharonne Hayes, director of the Mayo office of diversity and inclusion. It starts and ends with the patient, and results in culturally competent care.
“Diversity is happening within our demographics. We want to be part of it,” says Hayes. “The Mayo Clinic strives to increase its number of women and minorities. There is a focus on health disparity and health equity. The goal is to make sure that everyone gets the same care. To do all these things, to be successful, you need a diverse workforce,” says Hayes.
Hutchins herself works with the Project Management Institute’s global diversity community of practice as a member of its leadership council. She was recently chosen as a participant in the Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Greater Rochester and is a 2011 graduate of PMI’s Leadership Institute master class, both leadership development programs.
Tenet Healthcare’s Liz Johnson: from nurse to techie
Liz Johnson always loved science, and was fascinated by human behavior and communication. She enjoyed helping people during critical times. As a teen, Johnson worked as a candy striper and decided to be a nurse.
She earned a BS in nursing from the University of Texas-Arlington in 1978. As she got more experience, she observed that nurses needed to be able to lead, and be clinical advocates for their patients. She also developed an interest in computers and informatics, and realized that the future of healthcare involves both technology and medicine.
Johnson returned to school, earning her MS in administration from the University of Texas-Arlington in 1989, and became chief of nursing for Dallas-Fort Worth Medical Center. There she directed medical center nursing service activities and coached nursing directors in problem solving, conflict resolution and other management skills.
After a year, she became COO and vice president of operations. For the next six years, Johnson was responsible for the hospital’s day-to-day operations.
She spent the next six years as EVP and national HIPAA practice leader for the Healthlink Corporation, a health-information technology services company.
Johnson is a certified professional in health information management systems, a certification program for healthcare information and management systems professionals run by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). HIMSS is a nonprofit organization working for the optimal use of IT and management systems in healthcare.
Helping with the big picture
In 2002, Johnson moved to her current job as vice president of applied clinical informatics for Tenet Healthcare Corporation (Dallas, TX). She provides strategic vision, operational planning and implementation management for new, transformative, IT-driven clinical systems across Tenet’s forty-nine hospitals.
“Every hospital is in the process of taking what was on paper and centralizing it electronically for faster access, diagnosis and treatment. But it is hard work. It’s not easy to do,” says Johnson.
“By delivering data faster to a patient’s bedside, databases can enable quality-based decisions. Whether it’s full access to a patient’s history, or the matching of medicines and bar codes and proper patient identification, it all leads to the most fail-safe care possible, and more sophisticated ways of finding the best treatment,” says Johnson.
As technology and healthcare laws change, Johnson’s job has evolved. Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and its key Health Information Technology Act (HITECH) provision in 2009, Johnson has led Tenet’s transformational Improving Patient Care through Technology program, which will implement electronic health records in all Tenet hospitals by the end of 2014.
As a member of the Department of Health & Human Services Health Information Technology (HIT) standards committee, she’s actively involved in the U.S. healthcare reform movement in Washington, DC. She co-chairs the HIT standards committee implementation workgroup to help determine how ARRA’s HITECH legislation can best be enacted throughout the nation.
Johnson earned Modern Healthcare’s recognition as one of the nation’s top twenty-five clinical informaticists in 2010, 2011 and 2012. She was also named by HIMSS as one of the 2010 “50-in-50” memorable contributors in HIMSS’ fifty-year history, and won the HIMSS 2010 nursing informatics leadership award.
For those entering the field, Johnson suggests picking a clinical area of interest. “You can’t be something you’re not.” She also recommends taking courses outside your major department. For example, public speaking is a big requirement in informatics. “Communication is as important as your knowledge of the subject matter,” she says.
Johnson believes that all people in healthcare careers require good people skills. New healthcare professionals must also understand cultural, religious and other differences. They should look for diversity when selecting an employer. “If there’s all one type, beware,” she warns.
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES SEEKING HEALTHCARE IT PROFESSIONALS
Check websites for current listings.
|Company and location
|Aetna (Hartford, CT)
|Healthcare, dental, pharmacy, group life and disability insurance, and employee benefits programs
|Baxter International Inc. (Deerfield, IL)
|Medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology
|Coventry Healthcare (Bethesda, MD)
|Health plans, insurance, network rental services, and workers’ compensation services
|GE Healthcare (Waukesha, WI)
|Medical technologies and services
|Kaiser Permanente (Oakland, CA)
|Integrated healthcare delivery
|Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN)
|Medical care, research and education
|Tenet Healthcare (Dallas, TX)
|Healthcare services: hospitals, outpatient
centers and Conifer Health Solutions
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