A few years ago, the leadership team at the University of Chicago updated its strategic IS plan to make predictive and real-time analytics a key priority. Since then, the organization has undertaken a significant effort to clean up and prepare the data, and is looking to leverage predictive modeling not just to improve patient outcomes, but to “transform the organization and change the way we do business,” according to CIO Eric Yablonka. In this interview, he talks about the multi-year Phoenix Project at U of C, what it’s like to be work in a translational research environment; and where his team stands with Meaningful Use. Yablonka also discusses why he recruits analysts from other industries, what it takes to foster innovation in the hectic health IT environment, and why “the learning doesn’t end.”
- The balancing act of innovation & day-to-day tasks
- Creating “the healthcare organization of the future”
- Recruiting analysts from outside health IT
- 14 years at U of C
- The role that was “too good to pass up”
- Opportunities for today’s CIOs
- “The learning doesn’t end.”
LISTEN NOW USING THE PLAYER BELOW OR CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO OUR iTUNES PODCAST FEED
If this was a just a sleepy type of environment, a straight-ahead environment where you’re implementing systems, you’re supporting care processes and you’re really just focused on that, it would be one thing.
It is a home for people who really want to change the way healthcare is done, and we hope to be able to do that with it underpinned by some of our technology.
This industry, especially in the last two years, offers a ton of opportunities for CIOs to have a very significant impact in their organization and help transform the business in a vertical industry that is going through tremendous change.
There was and is a sincere interest by leaders in the industry to develop the next generation of CIOs and to support them and have them be successful.
Even if you’re a seasoned CIO, the learning doesn’t end. The things we were talking about five, seven, or eight years ago are different than the things we’re talking about now in a radical way. Anybody who wants to run a healthcare IT shop like they did in 2003 or 2004 and meet the contemporary needs of a healthcare organization today — if they haven’t evolved themselves, then it’s probably a bit of a challenge.
Gamble: I wanted to talk a little bit about innovation. Obviously, that’s something that’s a big priority at your organization. I just wanted to get some perspective on what it takes to foster innovation without forcing it, and what that requires from a leadership perspective.
Yablonka: That’s a good question, because I think academic medical centers, by their nature, tend to foster innovation. It’s always a challenge as you have all your day-to-day worries and requirements and imperatives of the organization for performance — whether it’s clinical performance or financial performance, many get bogged down in those kinds of things. On the other hand, one way to address those imperatives in an organization is through some sort of innovative approach. I’d say we’re a good mixture of both. We really look at different ways of doing things. We have thought leaders in the organization who really look at things in an innovative way or at least in a way that perhaps is not as traditional, and so we already have a mindset around that.
In our organization, there’s a lot of enjoyment around thinking through those types of things, and it’s a very stimulating environment. We have done some innovative work, particularly in our radiology area, where we have a faculty member who is quite inventive. We’ve looked and done things there that perhaps few other radiology organizations in the country have done.
I’ve talked to you about our predictive and real-time analytics work. We believe that as we mature with that capability, that’ll differentiate us and our ability as an organization such that it will advantage the business and clinical missions of the organization and also support the research and teaching side. We’re very excited about that. We work with our tech transfer people at the university around new ideas, intellectual property and things that are developed here, and we’re always interested in seeing if there are ways to create IP or perhaps even support the generation of new ventures out of these kinds of things.
The Chicago tech scene has really just exploded over the last two or three years. There are several incubators in town for startups. There’s a lot of innovation both outside of healthcare and inside of healthcare in the Chicago area. It’s a very rich environment for that, and we really do enjoy participating in those kinds of discussions. If this was a just a sleepy type of environment, a straight-ahead environment where you’re implementing systems, you’re supporting care processes and you’re really just focused on that, it would be one thing. But again, as an academic medical center, we’re doing all of those things and also working on the healthcare organization of the future — how we’re going to do population health and coordinate care, how our physician network is going to be developed, what new relationships and business opportunities we’re going to undertake, how we will be aligned in the marketplace. On top of all that, which all of us deal with, we also get to do some really innovative work, and that’s very exciting.
Gamble: I would think that’s something that could certainly be beneficial if you’re trying to recruit certain people to the staff or either IT or clinicians.
Yablonka: I think academic medical centers are just a little different. I’ve worked in community hospitals, major teaching hospitals, and academic medical centers, and it’s just a little different in that respect. If someone really is interested in stretching the envelope a little bit and trying different things and trying to go beyond just what I would characterize as the standard package kind of stuff, then it is a great place. It’s challenging.
On the other hand, it’s always a challenge to get things done, as with any complex organization. But the opportunities are there, and we do have people who come to us for these kinds of opportunities. We built our analytics team — at least, the IS part of our analytics team — primarily from people outside of healthcare. We really wanted a commercial grade capability for that. We have people from insurance and other industries working with us because they do have some pretty advanced experience in this area. It is a home for people who really want to change the way healthcare is done, and we hope to be able to do that with it underpinned by some of our technology.
Gamble: How long have you been with the organization now?
Yablonka: I finished my 13th year in August. I’m starting my 14th year, and it’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to be here at the University of Chicago. It’s an amazing place. We do really great work. We’re a very important part of the community and of the city of Chicago, and so it’s been a really great run.
Gamble: What was it that brought you to the area and drew you to the organization?
Yablonka: At the time I was considering the opportunity, the thought of working for one of the top academic medical centers in the country in a great place like Chicago was pretty much too good to pass up. And so I took the leap for those kinds of opportunities.
Gamble: I’m sure that over the course of 13 or 14 years, it’s been interesting to be part of such a big transformation in health IT.
Yablonka: I’ve seen a lot, both at the University of Chicago and prior to getting here. In the mid-80s, I was part of the team that put in the first bedside patient information system, and at that time, that was pretty radical stuff. Today, nobody thinks twice about that kind of thing. I can remember putting in some technology that today would be considered very boring, but back in the eighties, it was stretching the envelope a little bit.
Even here at the U of C in the last 13 years, we’ve tried some different things, most of which panned out in a really robust way. I’ve seen a lot of the changes, and when I think about my colleagues in the industry, there are those who have come before me, the first and second generation CIOs — maybe I’m in the middle somewhere, and then there are these unbelievably talented younger people coming up now. And this industry, especially in the last two years, offers a ton of opportunities for chief information officers to have a very significant impact in their organization and help transform the business in a vertical industry that is going through tremendous change.
We can talk to some of our industry leaders who marvel at the speed and the depth of the change, but there’s certainly no going back the way healthcare used to be. And the way healthcare is going to be in the next 5 to 10 years is going to be radically different than it is today. So we are right at the cusp of an industry going through radical transformation, and it’s one of the seats in the C-suite that is in the middle of all of it.
Gamble: I would think there are things that new or aspiring CIOs can learn from the seasoned CIOs, and it probably goes the other way as well.
Yablonka: Absolutely. The College for Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) started the CIO Boot Camp a while ago, probably about 10 years ago. I was fortunate enough to be the program director of that for a couple of years. The faculty was made up, and is today made up, of just some of the best CIOs in the business. There was and is a sincere interest by leaders in the industry to develop the next generation of CIOs and to support them and have them be successful.
I can tell you back in those days sitting through the CHIME CIO Boot Camp, I learned a tremendous amount from people who were attending — the students, if you will. Even today, we bring people in and it’s always my interest and my goal to learn from them. It’s similar to the analytics example that I just gave where we brought in some people from the insurance industry I just learned a tremendous amount from them. They’ve taught me about that space and I’ve helped them understand the healthcare vertical, and together we try to make great things happen.
The long and the short of it is that even if you’re a seasoned CIO, the learning doesn’t end. The things we were talking about five, seven, or eight years ago are different than the things we’re talking about now in a radical way. Anybody who wants to run a healthcare IT shop like they did in 2003 or 2004 and meet the contemporary needs of a healthcare organization today — if they haven’t evolved themselves, then it’s probably a bit of a challenge. I think all of us have to be continuous learners, and there are organizations like CHIME and others that really help facilitate that process. That’s one of the things that make this so interesting and why most of us continue to work in the industry — because it’s not only a challenge, but it’s so interesting to help be part of the change.
Gamble: We’ve touched on everything that I wanted to ask you about. I don’t know if there’s anything else you wanted to add, but it sounds like you guys are doing some really interesting work. I think that our listeners will definitely benefit from hearing about what you’re doing.
Yablonka: Thank you. As I said, when you’re fortunate enough to work in a very stimulating environment that invests significantly in technology and sincerely believes that it is core to transforming the organization, and you have very robust engagements by senior leadership and governance, and engagement and governance of IT, it makes for a really robust environment. I couldn’t be more pleased and, as I said earlier, honored to be at the University of Chicago. We’re really doing some great things.
Gamble: Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about it. I appreciate it.
Yablonka: Okay, great. Thank you.