During the 20-plus years John Lynch has spent in the healthcare IT industry, he’s learned many things, perhaps the most important being patience. Lynch, who recently took on a new role as VP/CIO at Greater Hudson Valley Health System, believes that the adoption of EHRs is going to result in tremendous benefits — but it isn’t going to happen overnight. CIOs, he says, need to view implementation as a journey and set realistic expectations for what transformation will require. In this interview, Lynch talks the importance of having integrated inpatient and ambulatory offerings, why it’s critical for vendors to understand their customers, and why it’s great to strive for flexibility — as long as you understand your organization’s limits.
- The twists and turns of career paths
- When one door closes another door opens
- The benefits of moving to a smaller health system
- Leveraging a Maritime education in healthcare IT
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We had to be very smart and frugal in our approach to use that capital wisely, and at the same time, make adequate plans to be successful at achieving Meaningful Use and putting ourselves in a situation where we could optimize the incentive money. That was certainly a struggle.
It’s a big challenge. It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be real smart about it. You’ve got to plan and adjust your activities in such a way that you can minimize risk and be as successful as possible — not only in the merger process bringing together two different IT organizations, but also keeping your IT goals on track.
I think you’ve got to network, as with any other profession. You’ve got to network with people, and in some cases, as much as you’d like to stay where you live right now, you’ve got to keep the door open to possible relocation.
I’m happy to get closer to that and have a more direct connection to our constituents and a better understanding and appreciation for what they’re going through and what their needs are from an IT standpoint.
To have the opportunity to go through the Maritime Academy with the goal of becoming an officer on a ship, which has a lot of responsibility — you can easily move that skill set and that experience over leading people in other areas of business and life, and so that’s helped quite a bit.
Guerra: Now I’d like to talk a little bit about your career and really the objective of this part of the discussion is for your colleagues. Everyone’s got shifts in direction and things happen, so the goal is for your colleagues to hear how you’ve handled different changes that have come up in your career. I just want to lay that down so you know where I’m coming from. You were at Provena for 12 years, correct?
Guerra: So that is a significant chunk of time. There was a merger — do you want to tell us a little bit about what happened and why you were no longer there at some point after the merger?
Lynch: Sure. When I actually when I started at Provena in the very beginning of 2000, it was a result of the initial merger of Provena Health. Three healthcare organizations came together in 1997 to form Provena Health. I came on board because one of the first operational areas of the organization that they centralized was the Information Systems department. And one of the first major implementations that was being done across the system was the Meditech EHR. It was sort of a significant component of those three organizations coming together, both from an operational standpoint of one new centralized support group for the system being IT, and secondly, implementing something, in this case, technology, across the system for the new merged organization.
Over those 12 years, we had gone through many of the ebbs and tides of healthcare and what was going on in the industry during that time period — the impact of changes in payments, and the financial economic situations that were going on here in this country. We had to deal with that. We had gone through at least two performance improvement system-wide initiatives while I was there to look at taking significant costs out of the health system in order to become more sound financially and to do things to be able to provide the capital that we wanted to invest back into the health system for growth and opportunity and to keep up with information technology.
Obviously, during that timeframe, Meaningful Use and electronic health records really started to come over the horizon and a lot of emphasis was put on that. The requirements to do that — to outlay investments out front of that process, with reimbursement only taking place from the government after the fact — had a significant impact on our financial capabilities and was a significant drain on capital in terms of where the capital focus would be. Was it going to be information technology, was it going to be to improve the infrastructure of our hospitals, add a new wing, build a new hospital — there was a lot of competition for that capital. So we had to be very smart and frugal in our approach to use that capital wisely, and at the same time, make adequate plans to be successful at achieving Meaningful Use and putting ourselves in a situation where we could optimize the incentive money. That was certainly a struggle.
Then obviously later on, because we were in the thick of our Meaningful Use achievement at Provena Health, now having to go through a new merger with another organization equal in size to Provena Health. They had six hospitals and we had six.
As we all know, mergers take a lot of energy and a lot of effort to become successful, and to be doing that from a CIO perspective and at the same time trying to achieve Meaningful Use and now at this point in time with the merger on the horizon, we were both going down different vendor paths trying to achieve that. It’s a big challenge. It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be real smart about it. You’ve got to plan and adjust your activities in such a way that you can minimize risk and be as successful as possible — not only in the merger process bringing together two different IT organizations, but also keeping your IT goals on track, and in this case, it was nothing different than anyone else in healthcare in trying to achieve Meaningful Use.
Guerra: So then you left?
Lynch: The natural process evolution of a merger is that you’re not going to duplicate leadership roles, and certainly the CIO role is a significant one. The Resurrection organization, their leadership team took a more forward role in the new merger — their CEO became the CEO of the new organization. I anticipated that they would probably continue with their existing CIO, and that was the decision that was made. So it was not really any surprise on my part. There was only going to be one of us, and so I went on to the next episode of my career, and I’m very pleased with it.
Guerra: Twelve years at one place, was this a difficult time for you? How many months were you out looking?
Lynch: I certainly started conversations with executive search firms right after I was aware that I was not going to continue there. I was with the organization for about a month after the decision was made, so I ramped up my activities fairly quickly. I had some flexibility with my arrangement with Provena Health, but I didn’t want to waste time on this. So I started up interviews fairly quickly, and I believe the interviews at Greater Hudson Valley were in March and a couple of weeks after that an offer was made, and I began in the middle of May.
Guerra: So it was a few months?
Lynch: Yes, it wasn’t a long period of time in transition. Now I have the extra work of obviously moving my family from Chicago out to the New York area. I’m out here right now with my oldest daughter who’s doing an internship in Manhattan. We’re building a home here and we’re trying to sell the other, so that will be some additional work to accomplish.
Guerra: A good CIO friend of mine was out of work for a year before he landed, and he wrote a great post on our site — I’ll have to send you a link to it — about his experience being out of work for a year and what it does to your self-esteem. It can really mess around with your head. You didn’t have anything like that sort of extended duration but I wonder if you have any thoughts about sort of being out there and how to stay strong, for your colleagues who may wind up in the same position.
Lynch: Yeah, I can appreciate that, and I certainly didn’t want to have that experience. I feel very fortunate that I found something in a relatively short period of time, Anthony, and it was something that I thought was a good fit. So it worked out well for me but I do know a number of colleagues that are not in the same situation these days and have been out for an extended period of time. I think you’ve got to network, as with any other profession. You’ve got to network with people and in some cases, as much as you’d like to stay where you live right now, you’ve got to keep the door open to possible relocation. In my situation, my kids are older — either finishing up college or they’re off on their own at this point in time, so for my wife and I to make that adjustment wasn’t a huge leap for us. I’m originally from the East Coast; I’m from New England. I’ve worked in New York City for about seven years early on in my career, so moving out to this area was not a difficult decision for us.
Guerra: It’s nice country. I’m in northern New Jersey, so I’m certainly pretty close to you.
Lynch: It’s very pretty out here in Hudson Valley.
Guerra: Yeah, certainly one of the most beautiful parts of the country, I would say. And your daughter was doing an internship in Manhattan, so that works out.
Lynch: It did. She was living in the city for the first portion of the internship. She was staying at the student dorms at NYU downtown. She’s a fashion merchandising major at Columbia College in Chicago, and she had an opportunity to do an internship with a designer here in Manhattan. She extended the internship to work for them for the preparation for Fashion Week that’s coming up in a couple of weeks in New York, and through that period of time. I’m temporarily renting a townhouse in Warwick, N.Y. Our home is being built in Middletown and won’t be ready until the end of the year. She’s staying with me and she’s taking the bus into Manhattan every day, but it’s working out. It’s a little bit of a commute for her, but it’s been a great opportunity and great experience for her. And it’s been good for me to have someone else staying with me from my family while we’re in transition.
Guerra: And your wife said, ‘sure, let’s do it,’ or was a little tougher than that?
Lynch: No, she felt comfortable about this. We have a lot of friends and family out here. She is from the Chicago area. We actually met in Boston in the early 80s and started our family out there. We’ve got a lot of connections back east. She’s got a sister that lives in Norwalk, Connecticut. I’m from a large family of five brothers and a sister. One of the brothers lives in Wilton, Connecticut, one is up in Massachusetts, and one is up in Maine, so we’ve got a lot of connections out here.
Actually, when the opportunity came about it, looked like a very pleasant one and it’s turned out that way. Believe it or not, my best friend that I met back in the 70s in Manhattan when I was working there lives in Warwick, so to think that we’d ever end up living together in pretty much the same neighborhood just seemed very unrealistic. So a lot of good things have come from this.
Guerra: Good for you. Were there parts of the country that were just off limits or were really going to be a tough sell, even for you?
Lynch: Definitely, I had been approached on some opportunities elsewhere in the United States that just personally, from a preference standpoint, I just didn’t think would be a good fit. Plenty of areas in the country I thought could work — I was looking at some opportunities out on the West Coast, but this played out for us and I think it’s going to work well for us.
Guerra: Okay, so you’re going from an organization — and I just know from the LinkedIn numbers — that is extremely large to one that is, I would say, significantly smaller. How would you describe the change in size, and has that been an adjustment for you?
Lynch: A little bit, actually, maybe, but a lot of positives. There are a lot of headaches trying to manage a bigger organization, and I will tell you, I’m not disappointed that I don’t have to go through all of the work and activity that would have resulted from the merger between Provena Health and Resurrection. Not that I couldn’t have done it, but my hats off to George Chessum, the CIO there. George and I knew one another for many years before the merger took place. We have a very friendly relationship. I know he’ll do a good job there, but I don’t want all the headaches that I’m sure he’s going through right now. That’s a huge challenge that I don’t have to deal with.
This has put me back into more direct contact with the hospital departments. Even though this is a corporate role, a system role here for two hospitals, as CIO you get more involved in the day to day activities at each hospital, which at Provena Health, I wasn’t doing. It was a larger organization. I had leaders within IT serving that function at the hospitals. Actually, I’m happy to get closer to that and have a more direct connection to our constituents and a better understanding and appreciation for what they’re going through and what their needs are from an IT standpoint.
Guerra: Now I just have one more question for you. I like to try and find something interesting on each of our interviewees, and you have an interesting educational background at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a BS in Marine Transportation. So tell me about how someone studying those things becomes a health system CIO?
Lynch: Well, it is a very interesting background and definitely unique. I don’t know of any other CIOs that are graduates of a Maritime Academy. Actually, I worked for a CIO that was a graduate of the Naval Academy, so not too far off, but like with many people, there have been a lot of unique and interesting turns in my career. I’ve very happy where things have ended up for me. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is the oldest operating Maritime Academy in the United States. Its purpose and its charter are to provide officers for the United States Merchant Marines. I did receive my license as an officer in the Merchant Marines and a commission in the Navy, but I decided before graduation that I wasn’t going to make a career out of being a merchant officer and actually initially went into the marine insurance business in New York City.
Over time, that morphed into some financial work that I did in the high tech business, which eventually morphed into project management work for software companies implementing EHRs. The longest part of my career has been in healthcare IT leadership positions in the healthcare industry. It’s definitely very different, but I think it has provided me with some unique skills and experience that most people don’t get.
I think the discipline of going through some military training brings a lot of potential if you harness it, and a lot of good habits in your professional work — how you work, your work ethic, and how you manage. To have the opportunity to go through the Maritime Academy with the goal of becoming a leader in the Merchant Marines as an officer on a ship, which has a lot of responsibility — you can easily move that skill set and that experience over leading people in other areas of business and life, and so that’s helped quite a bit. I have to remind you that my minor at the Maritime Academy was computer science.
Guerra: That’s true.
Lynch: It wasn’t completely foreign to me, but that was back in the day of Cobalt and Fortran. Things have changed quite a bit in IT since then.
Guerra: Do you still have a love of the water?
Lynch: I do, very much so.
Guerra: Do you get any time or are you going to get any time around boats in the next few years, or maybe retirement time?
Lynch: We won’t be ocean going, but for the Labor Day weekend I’m going up to a lake up in Maine, so we will be on a boat on the lake, and that’s always enjoyable.
Guerra: And you will be the captain?
Lynch: From time to time.
Guerra: All right, John, that’s all I had for you today. I want to thank you so much. This was a real pleasure.
Lynch: It was great chatting with you, Anthony.
Guerra: I’ll talk to you again. Take care.