Process matters as much as technology, especially when treading new ground

By Nick van Terheyden, M.D. Chief Medical Officer, Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences

Dr Nick Dell HealthIt’s an exciting time to be a chief medical information officer (CMIO), especially at a hospital or health system with forward-thinking leadership. New technologies are emerging that will help us make huge strides toward truly effective, precise and personalized medicine.

That said, it’s also a very complex time. New technology comes with a host of challenges, and the biggest lie not so much with the technology but with the people involved. New clinical technology inevitably disrupts established workflows, and while it can be a big improvement, it has to be handled carefully if you want the project to succeed.

Over the past five years, as EHR adoption has soared, we’ve seen spectacular successes and spectacular failures in technology adoption. The difference between the two often lies in the process, training and the implementation services used.

So what makes for a good process? Discipline, for a start. You want to move forward with all deliberate haste, but you don’t let yourself be pushed into taking shortcuts or unjustified leaps of faith. Too many projects have gone down in flames because a good process was circumvented in the haste to meet an arbitrary deadline or at the behest of an impatient leader. As the strategic technology leader for your organization, you set the standard for how projects are planned, implemented and measured. If you are disciplined, others will follow your lead.

No matter what the technology, there are a few key factors to focus on to increase your chances of success. Below are the ones that I think make a big impact. Some are obvious, but there are organizations that have ignored the obvious and lived to regret it. Take heed.

Know where you are

Before you launch a project (before your even plan a project), know your organization and its capabilities. Don’t assume you know what’s happening on the nursing units just because you meet regularly with the nursing leadership. They may not know what’s happening and impacting day to day work on the nursing units. People get very creative with workflows when time is short and they feel the pressure to do too much. If you are introducing technology that will affect a particular area, take the time to talk to front-line staff, with a particular eye to understanding the process variations that exist.

Same thing for the technology. Don’t base all your knowledge on what the CIO reports. Talk to the data center manager and the front line IT staff to learn the variations that occur to the set protocols. They will also be aware of how well their end users are following security protocols, which is knowledge you should have before you introduce new technology.

Think carefully about all the stakeholders, and take the time to understand how those stakeholders currently do their jobs.

Know where you are going

Make both a clinical and business case for any technology you want to adopt. Have clear and realistic goals. Avoid the temptation to oversell the merits of the new tools, because if the results fall below the expectations, things will get very uncomfortable for you and anyone else who has championed a project. Don’t undersell, but be sure to set achievable goals.

Also, get the metrics for a full year of operations prior to the adoption of the new technology, to have a reliable baseline for monitoring performance. Why a year? Because that will show any seasonal variations as part of a continuum. If you use a shorter window, you might inadvertently have data that is either on the top end or the bottom end of a variation, which could skew your view of results.

Gain from lessons learned

If others have blazed the trail before you, talk to them – use social media or join a TweetChat like #CMIOChat for example. Find out what mistakes they made, what challenges they saw and what factors were most important in making things work. Were there unintended consequences or unanticipated benefits?

Plan carefully

As you start the process, get all the key stakeholders at the table. Make sure you have input from the people who will use the technology most. That means frontline staff as well as leaders. Make your timeline reasonable, and do a pilot launch of the technology in parallel with your usual operations. That will allow you to test and refine before you go live. Even seemingly small changes can have big impact, and testing will uncover all those unintended consequences that could trip you up.

Don’t forget the business operations in your planning. One large system saw a huge drop in revenue when they implemented a new EHR in 2013, because it changed where and how charge capture occurred. Millions of dollars were lost over several months while they tracked down the problem and retrained staff. So if your new technology changes charge capture in anyway, you’ll need to plan for that. Your colleagues in the business operations arena must be involved.

Get the right resources

Don’t assume that you have all the expertise in-house to plan and implement a new technology. You can often save money in the long run by investing in consulting services and short-term staff augmentation to assist your people with the planning and implementation. Your staff have to keep the business running, while these contracted experts can focus solely on the project. If you choose your vendor wisely, you will have access to knowledge gained from hundreds of other engagements. And they will bring a disciplined process to the project, one that has been refined over many iterations and in widely varying environments.

But don’t just hire folks and walk away. Stay involved. Treat the consultant as a partner, and work together. Take advantage of the experts’ knowledge, and offer your own knowledge of the organization to improve the planning and implementation.

Choose your champions carefully

Physician and nursing leadership are often critical to successful technology adoption. The right champions can make or break a project. Choose these people based on their influence with their peers; their ability to be enthusiastic without being unrealistic; and their ability to take a disciplined approach to a project. An enthusiastic champion with no follow-through abilities can create cynicism and distrust. Conversely, don’t choose people who are so nit-picky that they slow things down over unimportant details. Common sense and an optimistic frame of mind are the key attributes you want. Plus a thorough-going knowledge of the clinical issues involved.

Start small and be both willing to fail and persistent

New technology inevitably requires trial and error. Failure is okay, if it happens small and early and is well documented. Do pilot projects before you take on a big one with new technology. Test, learn and test again. Don’t abandon a project without knowing exactly what went wrong and why. That process of examination can often identify a new approach that will lead to success.

cmiochat_TEDx_HarfordIn a TED talk on the subject of trial and error, Tim Harford (@TimHarford) notes that all really good complex systems are the result of trial and error. But it has to be disciplined trial and error, with results carefully documented and each failure examined for lessons that guide the next attempt.

Don’t be on the tail end of technology

In 2005, Blockbuster dominated video rentals. By 2010, the company filed for bankruptcy, its business model disrupted by Netflix’s streaming video and Redbox’s rental kiosks. Other brick and mortar businesses also declined, their profits eroded by Amazon, e-Bay and other virtual markets that offered responsive service and convenience.

Healthcare faces a similar turning point, in which the delivery of healthcare is radically changing. With the emergence of disruptive technologies like telehealth and retail express clinics, consumers want a different healthcare experience, one in which they have greater control, engagement and convenience.

So don’t be Blockbuster. You don’t have to be Netflix, but you don’t want to stick your head in the sand and wait to see what happens. If you are disciplined in your research, planning and expectations, and you have a well-thought-out business and clinical case for a new technology, move forward. The alternative is to fall behind and become irrelevant. And our patients can’t afford for us to give them half-measures.


Follow Dr Nick on Twitter via @DrNic1 and Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences via @DellHealth


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