Healthcare CIOs: Are you ready to take a seat at the leadership table?

Editor's note: This is part 2 in a two-part interview with Russell Branzell, CEO of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Colorado Health Medical Group and new CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). In part 1 of the exclusive interview, conducted during the CHIME CIO Forum during the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in New Orleans, Branzell discussed the core competencies required of healthcare CIOs.

In this exclusive interview Branzell talks about the CIO's role in the leadership of healthcare organizations and how health IT professionals can advance their executive careers, work with other members of the executive team, and prepare for the massive changes that healthcare reform and other initiatives will bring. 

FierceHealthIT: What are the challenges for CIOs when it comes to working with CEOs and other members of the leadership team?

Branzell: Every organization has its own ecosystem. And each one is unique in how it looks at the CIO. In my organization, I came in 10 years ago as the CIO but I've also been the VP of HR, I've been the president of a for-profit company, I ran the medical group for two years, I've run big construction projects. I was seen as a healthcare leader that happened to be responsible for IT. Sometimes people get pigeon-holed, especially people who grew up in an organization over a long period of time. They were the people that were always there in the basement, they were the tech people, they ran the old data processing unit, the IT. When they get to a certain point, that's the only way they're seen.

FHIT: And what would you say to CEOs about that dynamic?

Branzell: When that CIO leaves and the organization's leaders begin the recruitment process, they realize what they really want in a CIO is a person who is helping drive organizational change in money savings, quality improvement and safety improvement. And you had that person--they just left. The irony is they got hired by another organization to do that. Why didn't you promote them? Why didn't you get them to that level?

FHIT: How does setting impact leadership skills?

Branzell: There is a difference, for lack of a better term, in the leadership maturity level of some of those people in big organizations--large academic environments, large multi-hospital, multi-facility, complex health systems. What's interesting, though, is that we're seeing people with that skill set at smaller rural and community hospitals. And they enjoy working in those environments, with the unique challenges of very restrictive budgets and restricted ability to change and adapt and isolation, in some occasions.

Because of the size of their organization--and they wear 12 hats on any given week--they are usually only one or two steps away from direct patient care. At large academic systems or multi-hospital systems, you may be 10 or 12 steps away from direct patient care. And the only way you can stay connected is by rounding. If you're in a nurse manager's meeting talking about med reconciliation and answering the question "How are we going to do that?" If you say "Uh, I'm just the IT guy, leave me alone," that's not the right answer. You don't survive with that answer.

FHIT: Do CIOs need an MBA?

Branzell: I'm not going to say they need a specific type of degree, but I think a master's is critical for anyone in any leadership position, even at the director level. I would go so far as to say it's the bachelor's degree of yesterday. I even question myself as to whether I should go back and get a Ph.D., not because I need any more credentials on my resume, but because if I go to an academic environment full of others who have a Ph.D., and an M.D. in a teaching environment, do I need that for credibility? Every physician has an advanced degree, most nurses, if they're a director, must have a master's degree. So if you're going to play on that playing field of credentials and respect, you have to have it. If you're not a continual learner, you're stepping back--you're either moving forward or moving backward, one of the other.

FHIT: It seems like it's an exciting time to be a health IT leader.

Branzell: With great excitement comes great risk. There's a lot of money on the table right now. We have a serious obligation--we need to fix healthcare. We're not putting IT in because it's cool. Well, sometimes it's pretty cool. But IT needs to be a catalyst for transformation and improvement in all things. Especially cost reduction. If we can get cost reduction in healthcare, it will take the pressure off of our economy. There is a direct correlation with us doing our jobs well and the overall well-being of our economy. If we don't do our jobs well, we could break the economy.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and for clarity. 


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