When Dee Emon was promoted to the CIO role at Wake Forest Baptist Health in 2014, it was the first time she held that particular title — but she was no stranger to IT. In fact, Emon — a nurse by training — had spent the past decade with “one foot on each side of the fence.” As a result, she was able to bring to the CIO role an understanding of IT’s role in supporting patient care, something she’s always worked hard to convey to her team. In this interview, Emon talks about the toughest and most rewarding parts of being a CIO, how she has benefited from her experience in quality and performance improvement, and the work her team is doing with patient engagement and population health. She discusses the importance of building a strong network, how she has made cybersecurity education a priority, and what it’s like to work with Chad Eckes.
- Working with Chad Eckes – “It’s been a great opportunity to leverage his knowledge.”
- Her “career launching point”
- Importance of professional networks
- Mentoring: “Part of being a leader is helping others gain experiences.”
- Most fulfilling part of being a CIO
- Cybersecurity – “It’s so disheartening.”
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It’s been a great opportunity for me to leverage his knowledge as we move the IT strategy forward. I would also say that having my clinical background and his financial and IT background has afforded the organization the opportunity to move things forward and leverage some more innovative technologies.
Don’t be afraid. If there’s something you want to get involved in, like a project or a promotional opportunity, don’t get so wrapped up in whether or not you have all of the experience that would be requisite to be successful in that role.
There are always going to be times where as a leader, you are going to need to rely on others to bring such subject matter expertise to the table. My guiding principle has always been, have a great network of people you can reach out to and colleagues that you rely on.
The days where you can tolerate a 6-hour downtime have gone away. It takes a committed group of employees in the IT department to really make sure the systems are there to provide that safety net around the patients.
Nobody ever wants to think that people would target patients, especially in hospitals. Those people are so vulnerable, and things like ransomware are so disruptive.
Gamble: The person who held the CIO role before you, Chad Eckes, is still with the organization as CFO. How did that work — did you have interaction with him before he moved over?
Emon: Actually, this is the third organization where I have worked with Chad. I actually met him back in 2005 when I did the opening of the all-digital hospital back in Wisconsin, and I worked with him again at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Then he actually joined Wake Forest initially as their CIO, and he subsequently brought me in as the chief clinical information officer. Chad has a strong financial background; once so once he was here, he was promoted within the first 9 or 12 months. They had an interim CFO with the organization at that time.
Chad was brought in because Wake Forest had been struggling after their Epic implementation, primarily on the financial front. I think Wake is known as having the worst Epic implementation in the nation. They were unable to drop a patient bill for about nine months after they implemented Epic. As part of that recovery, they recruited Chad to come in, and he subsequently brought me in and once the financial system. Once things were stabilized in the IT department, he was promoted to the executive vice president and chief financial officer role, and I was asked to step into the CIO role.
Gamble: I imagine you still have quite a bit of interaction with him.
Emon: Yes, I report directly to him, which actually has been a great professional mentorship relationship for me. He obviously has a very strong IT background, having been a CIO for a number of years in his career. He also has a strategy background, so it’s been a great opportunity for me to leverage his knowledge as we move the IT strategy forward here at Wake Forest. I would also say that having my clinical background and his financial and IT background has afforded the organization the opportunity to move things forward and leverage some more innovative technologies; i.e., the data lake I mentioned earlier.
We’ve implemented a hybrid private cloud for our data infrastructure, and a lot of that has to do with Chad’s background in IT and developing the initial strategy when he was brought in, and then me executing on that over the past three years to really move the organization forward from a technology standpoint.
Gamble: When you were involved in the opening of the all-digital hospital, it sounds like that was really a pivotal point in your career, and an experience you really got a lot out of.
Emon: It was one of those experiences where you really don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re in it. But it was a great experience for me at that point in time with the technologies that we had available. We actually opened that hospital on IDX Last Word. Our goal was to hit all three Leapfrog criteria on the day we opened the hospital in 2005. We opened the hospital with complete physician order entry, and we had absolutely zero paper when we started. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have paper, there’s always going to be outside records and things of that nature. But we had a vision to really digitalize everything we could, and so early on we were scanning records into the EHR and ensuring that that environment was one going to really be leading edge at that time.
You’re right, from a background and experience standpoint, I learned probably more in that hospital startup about IT and technology than I had the 12 years prior to that I had spent in healthcare. It really was a launching point in my career. As far as the skill set and having that knowledge and experience under my belt, it definitely was something that has helped me as I’ve continued to move forward.
Gamble: It’s a good lesson for people to hesitate if something might be difficult, because it r could end up being a pivotal move.
Emon: That is absolutely true. As I talk with other leaders that are coming up in their careers, I always tell them, don’t be afraid. If there’s something you want to get involved in, like a project or a promotional opportunity, don’t get so wrapped up in whether or not you have all of the experience that would be requisite to be successful in that role. Oftentimes, talented leaders can step into new situations or new roles. What’s really most important is having a network of people that you can reach out to and learn from in areas in which you may not be a subject matter expert.
I don’t think there’s ever been a leader I’ve come across in my career who has definitively been able to say, ‘I’ve done everything and I know everything stepping into this role.’ Even if you have a background in something, depending on where you’re working, the culture of an organization, and the mission and vision of an organization, there are always going to be times where as a leader, you are going to need to rely on others to bring such subject matter expertise to the table. My guiding principle has always been, have a great network of people you can reach out to and colleagues that you rely on. And again, collaboration is where I see a lot of success for leaders that are moving forward in their careers.
Gamble: Good advice. Is mentoring something you try to do, either in an informal or formal way?
Emon: I would say both. I have people I worked with at prior organizations who I keep connected with. Even here at Wake Forest, we have a number of people within the organization who we’re constantly working with on their career paths and trying to determine how do you position and what learning experiences do you need to set yourself up for success given what your career goals may be.
I’ve had some great mentors as I’ve come up through my career. And so I consider that part of being a professional leader is helping others navigate and gain experiences, and sharing with them what’s been successful for me. Every leader that comes up through the ranks develops their own style, and their experiences really shape who they become. But I think it’s really important to share my own experiences with those people and provide whatever guidance I can.
Gamble: Now that you’re about three years into the role, what would you say have been the most challenging and fulfilling parts of being a CIO?
Emon: I would have to say the most fulfilling part is engaging with the staff. It’s really given me an opportunity to learn, to get a broader understanding of the IT landscape and its challenges, and really understand, at an employee level, those things that keep people coming into work every day and how to engage the people in the IT department. It’s very different than the clinical side where they’re seeing patients every day and they’re very connected to what they do and how that impacts the patient.
In the IT department, the further you get away from the bad side, it’s interesting to see what really motivates people and what keeps them coming to work every day. It’s been fun for me to learn in depth. I am just so impressed with the knowledge and the commitment of the people in the IT department here at Wake Forest. They truly really feel like what they do every day is take care of patients. Again, the IT department is here 24/7, 365, and people are reliant on the systems being up all the time. The days where you can tolerate a 6-hour downtime have gone away. It takes a committed group of employees in the IT department to really make sure the systems are there to provide that safety net around the patients. I would have to say that has been one of the most fulfilling things about coming into the CIO role — the people I get to work with.
The other thing I’ve really enjoyed being in the department directly full-time is the professional network that I’ve been able to develop, and networking with other CIOs and CMIOs throughout the country and learn about who’s really pushing the envelope on IT innovation. There’s just been so many great new things that have come on the market, was far as whether that’s direct things that provide care to patients or systems that are really connecting organizations together in new ways that are really advancing patient care.
Your other question was what are the struggles or things that have not been as maybe on the fun side, and I would say that cybersecurity has been one of those things that keeps me up at night at times. Nobody ever wants to think that people would target patients, especially in hospitals. Those people are so vulnerable, and things like ransomware are so disruptive. It’s disheartening that we live in a society and in an age where we have to worry about people doing malicious things that could ultimately lead to a patient death. Our EHRs are so critical to patient care today, and so when I think about what keeps me up at night, I worry about ensuring that we don’t have any type of bad events that could negatively impact our patients.
Gamble: That’s definitely a big one. It sounds like you feel like this is a role that you’re able to thrive in, and that it was the right move.
Emon: Absolutely. Definitely. After being on the clinical side for over 25 years, being in the IT department full-time has really been invigorating for me. Again, there are new challenges — different challenges, but ultimately, it’s a great position to be in professionally to really accelerate patient care. It’s really been in alignment with my professional goals from a patient care standpoint.
Gamble: It sounds you’ve had a really interesting road leading up to this. We like to hear about how people got to where they are and some of the lessons learned along of the way. It’s interesting to see how that kind of shapes people as leaders.
Emon: Absolutely. I think everybody comes to a leadership position with a little bit of a different lens based on their history. And so coming into the IT department, it’s been wonderful to work with some of the leaders below me who have worked their entire life in an IT department, or who have come from other clinical areas and have transitioned into IT over time. It provides a great, collaborative group.
I don’t think you can be an expert at everything, especially on the technology front. I have learned a lot about things like data warehousing, cyber security, infrastructure, and telephony. But I have people that have broad depths of knowledge in those areas that I work with every day. Unless you have that team of people and subject matter expertise across all of the domains, it really is an opportunity to bring a team of people together to deliver the outcomes that an IT department is accountable for.
Gamble: Absolutely. Well, I think that about wraps things up. I want to thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you, and I’d love to catch up again down the road.
Emon: Not a problem. I appreciate you’re reaching out to me and I hope you have a wonderful day.
Gamble: Thank you.