Executive Spotlight—Former ONC official Genevieve Morris wants to tackle 'un-sexy' health IT issues

As a self-professed health IT policy "wonk,"  Genevieve Morris said she likes tackling the "un-sexy" issues.

For instance: technical issues around infrastructure and governance that make nationwide data exchange possible.

"Nobody wants to do the un-cool, un-sexy infrastructure work that has to get done or interoperability doesn't work," she said. "I want to do the really hard things that we know need to happen."

Morris knows, first-hand, how the lack of information sharing in healthcare impacts people's lives and can delay critical care. Several years ago, a family member had a significant opioid abuse issue, she said.

"I'm convinced that if there had been data exchanged between hospitals back when my family and I were trying to figure out what was going on with him, we would have figured out much more quickly that he had an issue. That would have prevented a lot of heartache for our family," she said, citing that experience as one catalyst for her passion for health IT and policy.

For more than 10 years, Morris has worked at the crossroads of policy and technology. Her career spans working with health information exchange organizations, health IT vendor Audacious Inquiry and serving as the second-highest senior official at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. At ONC, she led the agency’s effort to develop the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement, a framework designed to improve data sharing between health information networks.

In July 2018, Morris was tapped to serve as the chief health information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs to oversee the VA's massive effort to transition to a Cerner electronic health record platform, a 10-year, $16 billion project. She stepped down from that role three months later.

More about Genevieve Morris
  • Age: 37
  • Family: Single, but I have two nieces I love dearly
  • Most important part of your morning routine: Coffee, followed by checking the news
  • A book you recommend reading: First Women by Kate Andersen Brower
  • A few words to describe your management style: Servant leadership
  • Biggest pet peeve: Poor grammar, e.g., not using the oxford comma or inconsistent comma use, using contractions wrong, etc. 
  • Favorite thing to do on your day off: Spending time with family, visiting local coffee shops, and baking

We caught up with Morris, now a consultant with Baltimore-based Integral Health Strategies who is running as a Republican in Maryland's second Congressional district, to chat with her more about health IT. 

FierceHealthcare: You've led some major health IT policy initiatives. How have those policies impacted the industry?

Genevieve Morris: I have been involved with some big things that have helped move the industry forward. While I was at Audacious Inquiry, I worked on a patient matching report for ONC, which dug into where we’re at, where we’re going, and how are we going to fix this issue. That report was the catalyst for ONC putting together some criteria around standards for matching demographics.

I’m proud of ONC's interoperability roadmap. That was more of a catalyst for the industry to start moving forward. And during my time at ONC, the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement is one policy that I think is going to move us forward. I saw a need to make it easier for organizations to connect and to build a network structure that was more like the telecom industry than what our industry looked like. I’m passionate about getting data shared for care coordination purposes and to ensure that people have effective care. I think TEFCA is going to be a catalyst for getting us where we need to be—with all of our networks connecting together and enabling broader data exchange.

I’m also proud of my work at the VA to finish up the Cerner [EHR] contract. 

FH: What led to your decision to step down from leading the VA's EHR project?

GM: At the end of the day, I had pretty set ideas on I how I thought the project should move forward based on my experience in the field. From my perspective, the leadership that came in, when we had a new VA Secretary come on board, they wanted a different path. My philosophy has always been, if you’re not the higher ranking person in leadership, then you should be the one to leave if you disagree with the path forward. I believe it is such an important project. My father and grandfather are veterans. It’s so vitally important that this project is done correctly.

FH: What is your perspective on the state of healthcare interoperability and how to improve it?

GM: I’ll take a step back and point out the positives first. Five years ago we were producing totally different data formats that didn’t work together and people couldn’t communicate. We didn’t have national networks as an option. We are slowly and steadily solving those problems, one by one. We have a CCD-A (consolidated clinical document architecture) now, which is not perfect but it’s certainly better than using different standards. We have direct messaging, which is an equalizer. We are making progress on interoperability for sure, but we still have a way to go. Hospitals, by and large, are pretty well connected whether it be through a regional HIE or a national network.

Connectivity in the ambulatory space and the long-term care and nursing facility space, where, by the way, most data resides is still just poor. And the reasons behind that are largely not technical but policy reasons. That's why TEFCA made sense because it tried to address the policy issues that keep us from being able to exchange data.

There are underlying infrastructure issues and we still just keep kicking the can down the road on those. For example, we still haven’t addressed the patient matching issue. I’m very encouraged by the path that we’re on to get to interoperability but I’m concerned that there is so much more to do with that really hard, un-fun, un-sexy work.

FH: What made you pivot from health IT policy to running for Congress? 

GM: Having worked on regulation at the federal level and then working to implement regulations in the private sector, I’ve found that when the legislation is written poorly that leads to bad regulations that hurt physicians and patients. We need better legislation that’s less influenced by special interests and that’s created thoughtfully and carefully and in a bipartisan and collaborative fashion.