There is perhaps no better way to learn the importance of disaster planning and recovery than having to spend 11 straight days in a hospital in the wake of a hurricane. For Sonya Christian, who was then CIO at Slidell Memorial Hospital, living through the experience of Katrina taught her how to be a leader. Now CIO at West Georgia Health, Christian is applying the lessons she learned during that stressful time and ensuring that disaster planning is a top priority. In this interview, she talks about her experience with Katrina, what it was like to take on a CIO position during a major Meditech implementation, her concerns about the proposed Stage 2 rules, and the one piece of advice she has for MU attestation. She also discusses the benefits of earning a CHCIO certification and why all CIOs need to give back to the profession.
- Making disaster preparedness a priority — “We need to be vigilant”
- “Use it or lose it” with vacation days
- The challenge of keeping staff motivated
- Data exchange inside and outside of WGH
- The HIE landscape in Georgia
- Keeping an eye on standards as they take shape
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A lot of organizations have a tendency to get caught up in the implementation phase but forget about the maintaining, or ‘How am I going to recover this in the event that we go down?’ You have to keep it a top priority; you have to move it to the top of the list.
I tell them every day, ‘we live in the most exciting time in healthcare that you could ever imagine.’ A lot of changes are happening and a lot of incentive plans are out there for organizations. This is an opportunity for our industry to take a giant leap in the way that it uses technology. It’s not going to get easier and the pace is not going to slow down at all, but you’ve got to take care of yourself in the process.
We’re building a mechanism for the exchange of that information that is standards-based. We’re really banking on the fact that we’ll be able to plug in toward another standards-based system that will connect us not only to the state of Georgia, but eventually into the national health information network.
My approach has not been a ‘wait-and-see’ approach with everything that we’ve worked on. If you wait and see, you never get anything done. Basically, I think you try to make wise choices as far as building blocks are concerned.
I will tell you that pure networking is one of my favorite ways of getting information. I belong to several different user groups with several different themes that I use on a regular basis. They’re kind of a weathervane for whether we’re headed in the right direction or not.
Gamble: I imagine where this must get tricky is with the number of priorities you have and the number of projects on your plate. It’s hard to devote time to everything and this is just one of many strategies I’m sure that has to be top of mind right now.
Christian: It is, and one of the interesting things that I find is a lot of organizations have a tendency to get caught up in the implementation phase but forget about the maintaining, or ‘How am I going to recover this in the event that we go down?’ You have to keep it a top priority; you have to move it to the top of the list. And just as a reminder, the number of tornadoes that we had this past year and the incidents we’d seen with other hospitals is just a great reminder that we need to be vigilant in what we’re doing.
Gamble: Yeah, absolutely. The last thing I just wanted to ask you about was that in terms of being a well-rounded person, I know that this is a really challenging time for CIOs because there is so much going on, but do you try to make sure that you are able to take time away when possible and just kind of get away from everything at the hospital when it is a possibility?
Christian: Yes I do and not only do I think about that for myself, I also think about it for my staff. There are times when you just have to get away. I enjoy spending time with my family. I enjoy going to conferences and educational things not just for healthcare IT but also for personal development, so I think it’s important. I have a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to my vacation each year. I try to use each year’s vacation during that year. I try not to accrue a whole lot from year to year because I think it’s important for me as an individual to have that time away from the office.
Gamble: I think that it’s great that you encourage your staff to do the same because it’s for everyone’s own good, and frankly, you’re doing a better job when you have a chance to relax a little bit now and then.
Christian: I look at our journey here at West Georgia Health. Actually it started in 2007. This is 2012; they’ve been five years churning and burning on new implementations, on building advanced clinicals, and on stepping up to meet the Meaningful Use challenge. There has to be some refresh time in there. I tell them every day, ‘we live in the most exciting time in healthcare that you could ever imagine.’ A lot of changes are happening and a lot of incentive plans are out there for organizations. This is an opportunity for our industry to take a giant leap in the way that it uses technology. It’s not going to get easier and the pace is not going to slow down at all, but you’ve got to take care of yourself in the process. So trying to keep them motivated and not fatigued is probably one of the biggest parts of my job.
Gamble: Of course. I really like what you said about how this really is an extremely exciting time, but it has to be absolutely exhausting for people in your shoes and for your staff. But what you said just really did an excellent job of summing it up where we are today. So we’ve touched on everything that I wanted to talk. Is there is anything else that you wanted to discuss, whether it’s something you’re working on or any of your thoughts of what’s going on in the industry right now?
Christian: One of the things that we didn’t touch on was health information exchange and obviously that’s top of my most organizations right now. We have our ‘toe in the water,’ so to speak, with HIE. We’re exchanging information with our physician offices — not just our employed physician offices, but also with some independent physician offices, and obviously we plan to build on that as we move forward, but we’re also very closely watching the Georgia State landscape to make sure that we can work with them when the time comes to pull the different regional HIEs together. I would say that’s probably one thing we didn’t discuss that I think pretty much of mind with most of the CIOs today.
Gamble: Right, I’m glad you brought that up. So the approach you’re taking is that you’re really focused more on connecting with your own physicians first and then kind of waiting and watching the regional HIE scene in your state?
Christian: Right now the biggest benefit for us in our organization is being able to connect with our immediate community physicians and the areas where we have patients that cross the line a little bit with some other healthcare systems — those are the ones we’re watching closely. But at the same time, we’re building a mechanism for the exchange of that information that is standards-based. We’re really banking on the fact that we’ll be able to plug in toward another standards-based system that will connect us not only to the state of Georgia, but eventually into the national health information network.
Gamble: Right. Now as far as the HIE picture in your area, is there a specific regional HIE that you think that you would hook into or is it something where that’s really starting to take shape as far as which HIEs are sticking around?
Christian: I think that we’re seeing a lot of activity. Our HIE is what I’d call informal and it’s business-based; working with those physicians that we work with on an everyday basis. But there are several strong HIEs in the state of Georgia that are already in place, and it would be my goal at some point to be able to plug in with those other regional HIEs that have developed over the last several years and to be able to join with them in a state HIE. And I believe that that’s the direction that Georgia is planning on taking — using the regional HIEs that are already in place to help build maybe kind of a hub environment.
Gamble: It’s so interesting because you have 50 states and basically 50 different situations in terms of where they are with HIEs, so it’s something that’s really an interesting thing to watch and something I would imagine you have to really stay on top of before you make any major decisions to see how things are developing.
Christian: I find it very interesting. My approach has not been a ‘wait-and-see’ approach with everything that we’ve worked on. If you wait and see, you never get anything done. Basically, I think you try to make wise choices as far as building blocks are concerned. You really spend a lot of time thinking about standards and obviously we know that the standards for health information are really just beginning. But you’ve got your HITSP’s and things like that that are already out there that are probably going to set the stage for where we’re going with some of these things, and so you try to do everything that you can with that future vision in mind so that with at least a little tweaking, you can participate.
I think about that with the clinical nomenclature where you’re looking at your LOINC codes and you’re looking at your ICD-9 and your ICD-10 and your SNOWMED CT codes that you’re trying to pull together so that you have this common language when working between organizations. I think those are going to be the building blocks of where we go so everything that we do needs to be built on that common foundation.
Gamble: Right and as always, I’m sure that being hooked into organizations like CHIME and HIMSS is always helpful just in terms of being able to say abreast of everything that’s everything going on and being able to reach out to peers when you need to.
Christian: Absolutely, and I will tell you that pure networking is one of my favorite ways of getting information. I belong to several different user groups with several different themes that I use on a regular basis. They’re kind of a weathervane for whether we’re headed in the right direction or not.
Gamble: At least it’s good to know, I’m sure, that there are so many people who are in the same spot and just being able to bounce things off of them or just hear what they’re doing is helpful I’m sure.
Christian: Absolutely, and also being able to gain from their experience. We’re all doing different things at different times and if there’s one lesson that I can learn from someone else who’s gone before me, then I need to take heed and do it.
Gamble: That’s a wise approach. Okay, well unless there is anything else that you want to touch on, this has really been great, and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Christian: I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you and I hope that something that I’ve said may ring a bell or resonate with someone else. It’s all about communication; it’s all about staying in touch. That’s important for us right now.
Gamble: Yeah and I really think that others are going to benefit from hearing about what we talked about. So thank you so much, and I hope to speak to you again in the future.
Christian: Sounds great, thank you so much.