Talk about hitting the ground running. When Lee Powe started as CIO at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital, he had just five days to familiarize himself with his new surroundings before kicking off a major system installation. Fortunately, it was the same ED system he had implemented at his previous organization. But still, it gave him a taste of how much work needed to be done — and how different it would be to lead a smaller organization. In this interview, Powe talks about the risks and benefits of using cutting-edge technology, Hugh Chatham’s approach to data exchange, the importance of having a true open-door policy, why it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, and what keeps him up at night.
- Open-door policy — “I listen. You can change my mind.”
- Balancing staff workloads
- Computer-assisted coding
- Lessons learned from the military — “You have to depend on your people.”
- From PACS administrator to CIO
- Why Hugh Chatham is home
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I like to understand what’s going on in their personal life as much as their work life so that I can load-balance them a little bit. You spend a good chunk of your life at work, and so your personal life weighs on it.
You have to communicate and speak. You have to let everybody know where they fit into the process and help them along. I believe in helping everybody grow into other positions if they’re available. But when you’re a small community, it’s challenging.
We’re trying to automate that with some products that enable computer-aided coding. By bringing the two worlds together, it allows me to assist them to be more efficient without killing themselves, because we’re doing more with less, so we need to make technology do more for us.
You get a tremendous amount of leadership and management training, because with the military, everything is very focused. When you want to learn how to counsel somebody, you go to school for six weeks and they teach you how to counsel someone.
I’ve tried to develop that same environment — not necessarily from the standpoint of ‘protect me because I’m going to get shot,’ but from the standpoint of, take care of your boss and I’ll take care of you.
Gamble: Would you say that you have a leadership philosophy? What kind of leader do you consider yourself to be? I get the impression that you’re probably somebody who’s pretty approachable and encourages an environment where people can be innovative and come forward with ideas.
Powe: This is actually my strong suit. We’ve been Healthcare IT News’ Best Hospital IT Department two years in a row for the small hospital category. I have an open door policy. I listen. You can change my mind if you can convince me that it is the right thing to do. I have a good background in a little bit of everything. I know everything from infrastructure to virtualization, and so I believe that knowing what your people are doing will help tremendously. I like to understand what’s going on in their personal life as much as their work life so that I can load-balance them a little bit. You spend a good chunk of your life at work, and so your personal life weighs on it.
Every Monday morning I have three meetings. The first meeting is with the IT staff. The second meeting is with my analysts on what projects are going on, and that includes my supervisors from HIM so that they can hear what’s going on and be part of it. And then my third meeting is with the HIM staff. Communication is huge. You have to communicate and speak. You have to let everybody know where they fit into the process and help them along. I believe in helping everybody grow into other positions if they’re available. But when you’re a small community, it’s challenging. There aren’t a lot of positions to grow into unless you are expanding.
An open-door policy is probably the best thing. Come in, sit down, and shut the doors. Be upfront, be honest, be trustworthy, and be loyal and you can get anything and everything that you want while you’re here.
Gamble: When you said that you have experience in a lot of different areas, that that definitely lends some credibility too just in being able to say, ‘I’ve done what you’re doing now.’ I think that that lends a lot of credibility.
Powe: The one thing that was kind of funny to me was when we had a panel interview at HIMSS, one of the guys in a large facility says, ‘Well it’s not like I’m doing any sequel coding,’ and I said, ‘I still am.’ That’s funny to me because I do it. I’m still writing sequel code, and I’m learning so much on medical records at the same time with medical record law and compliance and coding records. I’m gaining a great amount of respect for coders and what they do and how it works. We’re trying to help them and automate that with some products that enable computer-aided coding. By bringing the two worlds together, it allows me to assist them to be more efficient without killing themselves, because we’re doing more with less, so we need to make technology do more for us.
Gamble: That’s definitely a theme we hear a lot of — having to do more with less; less of a budget, less resources. The last thing I wanted to ask you about was about your background. You talked about having a career in the military, and I just wanted to ask how you made the jump into healthcare and how you’re able to draw upon that experience in the military.
Powe: It’s rather interesting. I started with the military when I was 17. I kind of screwed up my life as a kid. I got married very young, dropped out of school, had to go back to school, and joined the military. I wasn’t really what I wanted to be when I went in. I joined the Air Force and I actually ended up being a cop in the Air Force and people usually say, ‘how did you end up being in computers?’ Well, somewhere along the way, being a cop, I went to instructor school and learned how to be a police instructor. When I was teaching at the different bases, I developed a fascination with computers as the military got them in the early 80s, and it was like ‘Wow, this is kind of cool.’ I started playing with computers and learned a lot about computers. I started writing programs as a hobby, and my hobby eventually turned into a job when I was at my very last base before I retired from the military.
I started at 17 and retired when I was 37, so then it was time to go on to another job. You get a tremendous amount of leadership and management training, because with the military, everything is very focused. When you want to learn how to counsel somebody, you go to school for six weeks and they teach you how to counsel someone. When you want to learn how to develop and teach and be an instructor, you go to school for eight weeks. When you want to be a manager and a leader, you start at different points in your career. In the early part of your career, you go for three days. Then when you get another stripe, you go for five days. When you get another stripe, you go for four weeks, and then when you get another stripe, you go for six weeks, then eight weeks, then 12 weeks. So throughout your military career, you’re constantly getting education on leadership and management, stress management, suicide awareness, and counseling. It makes you get a wealth of experience and knowledge and learn to listen to your people.
When I was an instructor, I was a course chief. I had 17 instructors working for me and 150 students working for them. You have to depend on your people. They have to be loyal. They have to be trustworthy, and you have to know they’re doing the right thing all the time. When I retired, I went into the telecommunications business. The dot-coms were very popular. Everybody was signing up for it, getting tons of stock options, and getting lots of money, and then it blew up about a year later, so I lost my job. Now, when you spend 20 years in the military then you lose your job, it’s devastating.
Gamble: Yeah, sure.
Powe: I said, ‘you know, healthcare seems like a good place to go.’ I started submitting applications, and somebody took a chance on me. I went into healthcare as a PACS administrator. I started from ground zero; they didn’t have a system. I developed the infrastructure, installed a PACS system, and got it up and running. Everybody loved it. It was the best thing that ever happened to the organization. I got promoted to clinical systems manager, did a great job there, and I’ve been working my way up ever since. I found a great little place in Hugh Chatham. It’s a fabulous organization. It is beautiful. We have a nice facility and I think we’re making changes here, but that’s how I worked my way into healthcare.
Gamble: Interesting path to get there, but all things said, would you do it all again to get to the same place?
Powe: I think I would probably do it a little differently. I might have cut out a step or so along the way, but the military — I would not have given that up. I really enjoyed it. People really have your back and your life really is dependent upon it. When you are in the military as a cop, or you’re deployed overseas in combat situations, you really understand somebody has your back. I’ve tried to develop that same environment — not necessarily from the standpoint of ‘protect me because I’m going to get shot,’ but from the standpoint of, take care of your boss and I’ll take care of you. I’ve tried to develop and instill that. Everybody in my department is protected and taken care of, and I will look out for their best interest as much as I can, and I would like the same in return. I think that coming up through the military has benefited me where I am today. I think it’s the right thing to do for your people.
Gamble: It sounds like you have a good organization over there, especially seeing as you’ve been recognized as having one of the best IT departments to work for. So it seems like you landed at the right place.
Powe: Oh yeah, this was the right place for me.
Gamble: All right, well, I know we’ve talked about a lot. I don’t know if there was anything we missed that you wanted to discuss but if not, I really appreciate you giving us your time today.
Powe: Not a problem. Healthcare is evolving and it’s going to continue to evolve. We have to embrace the different types of technologies, because it’s all about the patient; it’s not all about the dollars. Sometimes you have to focus on the patient first, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.
Gamble: All right, well I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. This has been great, and I hope that things continue to go well there.
Powe: I appreciate it.
Gamble: Thank you very much.
Powe: All right, take care.