Of the many lessons Maggie Ratliff learned from working at large organizations, none was more valuable than the need to do your due diligence. For some CIOs, that might mean using data to argue the case for a new system. For Ratliff, it means doing everything she can to avoid a major rip and replace, including bringing in the vendor to do an optimization study. In this interview, she talks about what it’s like to lose the red tape, how she approached being the new CIO, her concerns about MU stage 2, and how she is leveraging physician leaders to help drum up support for IT tools. Ratliff also talks about the staffing challenges that come with being in a rural area, the one thing you can’t do with physicians, and what she does to unwind.
- About Sarah Bush Lincoln
- From the city to the country
- Reaping the benefits of a small organization — “We have autonomy to do what we need to do.”
- Keys to a smooth transition
- Walking into budget talks
- Internal IT marketing
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We’re really country folk rather than city folk, and so the location really appealed to us. But from a professional standpoint, it was really transitioning from a corporate-owned entity to more of a standalone where they have autonomy to do what they need to do.
That’s really difficult to do, especially when you come to a smaller organization where the team is more tight-knit and it’s truly more like a family and you have an outsider coming in.
I’ve always felt like that’s a good strategy — to go in and learn who the people are that you work with and develop those relationships and build that trust. As you do that, you can make the changes that need to be made, and everybody appreciates your point of view.
I’ve learned it’s so much easier when you have that third set of eyes come in. They’re objective and they can see the organization for what it is.
So much of what we do is hidden in the background — maintaining servers and keeping things running and making sure the network runs and that everything is secure. No one sees that. We want to make sure they understand what we do; that we don’t just sit back here and play on the computers.
Gamble: Hi Maggie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Ratliff: Thank you for inviting me.
Gamble: Just to give our readers and listeners a little bit of background, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center — what you have in terms of bed size, ambulatory, things like that.
Ratliff: Sarah Bush is a 128-bed, not-for-profit regional hospital. We are located in East Central Illinois in Coles County. We are an accredited organization by The Joint Commission. We have also been awarded the Illinois Performance Excellence Gold Award for achievement in excellence, which is the highest performance honor in the state. We have about 1,750 employees and we have probably 17 different clinics that run the gamut of all different specialties. We employ about 120 providers, including physicians and mid-levels. We pride ourselves on the quality of care that we provide here.
Gamble: You said you’re located in East Central Illinois. Is that a fairly rural area? What are the nearest cities?
Ratliff: It is a very rural area. The hospital is officially located in Mattoon, Ill., but we really are on the city line between Charleston and Mattoon. The hospital is shared between those two communities. Charleston is where Eastern Illinois University is located; it’s still not a very big city itself. I think the largest city that we are located near is probably Champaign. That, I think, is probably the most known city that we’re located near.
Gamble: You’ve been CIO there since the end of last year?
Ratliff: Yes, since December of last year, so about seven months.
Gamble: When did you move to the area?
Ratliff: I actually moved here in January. I came here after leaving an Ascension organization in Kansas City, Missouri.
Gamble: How has that been so far for you, doing that kind of move?
Ratliff: You know, I’ve actually enjoyed it a great deal, personally. We love it. We bought a house out in the country so we’re really enjoying being in the country, and the transition from a large organization to a smaller has actually been very good for me. I’m really enjoying being part of an organization where we have autonomy to do what we need to do to provide quality care for our patients. I’m enjoying not really having all of the political things that affect us and not having a lot of hoops to jump through with having a corporate sponsor or anything like that. Being a standalone facility is very rewarding at times.
Gamble: I can imagine. We had a webinar not that long ago where Chuck Christian and Sue Shade both talked about taking on a pretty different CIO role. They talked about some of the motivations like wanting a new challenge or wanting a better geographic location. What would you say was the main draw that took you to Sarah Bush Lincoln?
Ratliff: Well, I think there were a couple of things. We’re really country folk rather than city folk, and so the location really appealed to us. But from a professional standpoint, it was really transitioning from a corporate-owned entity to more of a standalone entity where they have autonomy to do what they need to do, and we really don’t have the corporate politics to deal with. For me, that was the most appealing thing about it.
Gamble: I can understand that. As far as being the new CIO, how do you approach that, as far as kind of getting to know your team and then wanting to carve out your own strategy but not stepping on toes?
Ratliff: That’s really difficult to do, especially when you come to a smaller organization where the team is more tight-knit and it’s truly more like a family and you have an outsider coming in. But I have to say, the organization here has been very open and very welcoming to me. I have a very good team here. I’ve been able to transition myself into the organization very quickly, and it’s really gone very smoothly.
I started out by openly communicating to the team about my style and what my expectations were. I try to be a very transparent leader and be open about my plans and my thoughts on things, and it’s been very successful for me so far. I’ve been able to transition into this team. I have two directors and I’m getting ready to hire another director. We’ve established a very good relationship just by having that open, honest communication between the three of us in trying to move this organization forward.
Gamble: I imagine that that really is a fine line that you need to walk, especially in the beginning. Nobody wants to be the new person who comes in and says, ‘This is how I do things.’ I imagine that it did require a little bit of patience on your part as well as on the part of your staff.
Ratliff: It did. I’ve never been one to go into a new organization and demand things or change things right off the bat, because this hospital’s been very successful, and so obviously people are here for a reason. I just really wanted to make sure that I got to know them all and understand where their skillsets were, and then if changes need to be made, we’ve made them. I’ve always felt like that’s a good strategy — to go in and learn who the people are that you work with and develop those relationships and then build that trust. As you do that, you can make the changes that need to be made, and everybody appreciates your point of view.
Gamble: I think what you just said about building trust — that’s so huge. Change can be difficult for all of us. I think that if people know you have an open-door policy and that they can talk to you, I think that goes a long way.
Ratliff: It has for me. Like I said, we’ve been very successful, and that goes along with building relationships with the administrative team here at the hospital. You have to build your own credibility, and that takes time. Fortunately, I don’t know if I was lucky or unlucky — I still haven’t figured that one out—but I came in about the time we were getting ready to do budgets for FY14. Every organization does things differently. This organization obviously works differently than my last one, so I got a crash course on how the budgeting process works and was able to adapt to that process and get some things done.
We were actually very fortunate this year. We were awarded quite a few dollars to replace some infrastructure and to approach a software agreement with Microsoft so that we can actually have enough licenses so that we’re all on the same version of Outlook and we’re all in the same version of Word and things like that, so we don’t have compatibility issues. We’re really looking forward to that. We’ve also been able to get approval for a SharePoint installation so we’re looking forward to installing that and really helping the organization move forward where technology is concerned.
Gamble: That’s very interesting coming in right at budget time. I can see why you said you’re not sure if that’s a lucky or unlucky thing, but if nothing else, it really does provide a crash course and help you understand right away where the organization stands. I guess from that point, it’s a good thing.
Ratliff: It is, and we actually did very well. We were able to make some strides with our capital and our operations and get a couple of new FTEs. The organization has been very supportive. The administrative team has been very supportive of our strategy that we’ve been able to enact so far. I’ve also contracted with a company to come in and help us build our strategy along with the organizational strategy to try to align the two — just to make sure that IT is bringing value to the organization and that we continue to do that on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Gamble: Is that a consulting-type agreement?
Ratliff: It is. It is with a third party. I’ve learned it’s so much easier when you have that third set of eyes come in. They’re objective and they can see the organization for what it is. The thing I like about this plan is that they are going to interview other people in the organization outside of IT — even a couple of board members — to get their take on what they perceive as the value of IT. That helps us obviously to know where we need to market internally our skills and what we bring to the table.
Gamble: That’s really interesting. That’s a topic that we’ve heard more of recently — the need to not quite show off but really market and bring attention to some of these IT achievements to make sure that all of the organization is aware of what’s being done and knows the importance of these initiatives.
Ratliff: Absolutely. Nurses, physicians, and leaders really don’t see what we do in the background. So much of what we do is hidden in the background — maintaining servers and keeping things running and making sure the network runs and that everything is secure. No one sees that. We want to make sure that they understand what we do; that we don’t just sit back here and play on the computers. We keep the organization running and we keep it secure. We keep the information flowing and all the data integrity in check and things like that. It really is about internally marketing what you do.