In November, when CHIME first announced it was creating a new leadership role to serve as ambassador for the organization, there was a great deal of anticipation as to who would fill those rather large shoes. Last week, when Russ Branzell got the nod, no one seemed to be surprised. An HIT veteran, Branzell his proven his mettle, spending a decade at Colorado Health Medical Group (formerly Poudre Valley Health System) serving in various leadership roles, and before that serving as regional deputy CIO and at Sisters of Mercy Health System in St. Louis, Mo. Recently, healthsystemCIO.com spoke with Branzell about his plans as CEO at CHIME, the leadership lessons he has learned along the way, and how he hopes to help further advance health IT.
- Getting the nod from CHIME – “It was a perfect fit”
- Being proactive — not reactive — with legislation
- Communicating to policymakers about challenges in implementing HIT
- CHIME’s focus on education
- Working with Rich Correll — “Together we can do some really great things”
- Lessons learned from the military
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In the past, we’ve really tried to react to the overall policies. One of the things we want to do is get on the more proactive side to actually start shaping on the frontend a lot of the legislation that’s being put in place.
We’ve just reached a point in our growth where we really need two people working in that capacity, and in particular, someone with CIO experience filling that CEO position and being the voice in the industry in helping guide CHIME as we move forward.
It doesn’t matter what anybody’s job is — it could be yours, it could be somebody on the CHIME staff, it can be someone providing direct patient care. In the end, we all have an obligation to make sure we’re improving healthcare, not only locally but nationally as well, and I think we all have a part to play in that.
Things that for many might be a very stressful situation, you can handle in a relatively calm and benign way, because you’ve experienced what I would consider worse in other places. So you look at some of these things and say, ‘we can deal with this. We can handle it.’
It is a significantly different world with the responsibilities that CIOs have in organizations now. In many organizations, they are truly the drivers of transformational change and that is a huge responsibility and we need to do everything we can to support them in that.
Gamble: Hi Russ, thanks so much for joining us today.
Branzell: Thank you very much for having me.
Gamble: First off, I want to congratulate you on being named CEO of CHIME. When does start officially?
Branzell: Thank you very much. April 5 will be my first day with CHIME. With that being said, there will also be some things happening at CHIME and HIMSS in New Orleans and some other events, but my first official day will be April 5.
Gamble: Can you tell us a little bit about the selection process? What it was like from your end?
Branzell: I have to give credit to the board of directors of CHIME, who went through a pretty arduous process of vetting out some candidates and then going through the interview process. Really it was all about, from their words — from what I’ve heard the chair of CHIME, Buddy Hickman describe — trying to find the right candidate to make sure we’re guiding CHIME into the future; making sure of its success and making sure there’s a person who would be able to work really well with the excellent staff of CHIME, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be that person picked.
Gamble: What made you interested in the role? Obviously, this is something that I’m sure a lot of people were interested in, but what was it that appealed to you about this?
Branzell: My entire professional career has been based around the roles I had in the past as CIO and working up through the HIT executive ranks. And a big part of that for me was the development opportunities that I had with CHIME, and the place that CHIME has been able to carve out in the industry to represent the CIOs and HIT executives across a very broad spectrum of areas. CHIME, being very successful to this point so far, was looking forward to an opportunity to continue to expand that, grow that, and capitalize on the strengths that are already in place, and it was just a perfect fit for me, having already with CHIME in the past with my board positions there and other volunteer positions. Now it’s just a great place for me to serve and use my skills to continue to grow CHIME and serve the CIO and vendor community.
Gamble: There are a couple of different arms to CHIME when you look at education, advocacy, career advancement, etc. Does it make it challenging to decide where to channel your energies first? Walk us through that a little bit.
Branzell: I think that’s part of the first process that I’ll be working through with the board and with the staff of CHIME. There’s already quite a bit of excitement and demand for my time as we start looking forward on this. There are some focal points that the board will want me to continue to work on and grow; obviously overall organizational growth and making sure we’re serving our members are always the highest priorities — both the CIO members and the foundation, and we want to make sure we continue that effort.
One of the areas that we know right out of the gate we’re going to have to focus on and continue to focus on is public policy and advocacy, and we’ll continue to work with the CHIME staff in DC. But across the entire nation, through StateNet and other areas, we’ll focus our efforts there, and then we’ll continue to work on it from a board perspective to make sure we’re working on the right things at the right places. Obviously in the end, an organization like CHIME is there for one primary reason, and that’s to serve the members and to serve the community of HIT.
Gamble: I’m sure you’re going to have your work cut out for you obviously, with the time we’re in right now with so much going on from an advocacy perspective.
Branzell: I think the area of advocacy in particular is quite exciting, and the opportunities to work with the folks that we’ve already built great relationships with in DC, both on the legislative side as well as on the government service side, through ONC and other organizations from that perspective, as well as to work with the policymakers themselves and even some of the other organizations such as the Bipartisan Policy Committee, which we partnered up with for many years. In the past, we’ve really tried to react to the overall policies. One of the things we want to do is get on the more proactive side to actually start shaping on the frontend a lot of the legislation that’s being put in place, specifically around healthcare reform in the application of HIT.
Gamble: On our site we chat on a semi-regular basis with Sharon Canner and Jeff Smith, and they’ve been talking a lot about the importance of having policymakers actually do site visits in their areas with the hospitals to really make sure that they have that understanding of just how much it takes to implement these systems. It seems like that’s something that’s really important.
Branzell: The amount of work right now that the average CIO out there has to deal with, with so much going on with implementation changes, the meaningful use requirements, ACOs and population health, the soon to be ICD-10 requirements that they’ll have to work on — just that amount and magnitude of work, I think, goes a little underappreciated across most areas. In particular, I don’t think the folks in Washington have a real good understanding of just how much is on the plates of organizations right now, and in particular, what the CIOs have to implement to create that change. One of the things we want to do is make sure we’re a clear voice, offering both positive and constructive feedback for the industry back to the policy makers and implementers Washington so we can make sure we do this right. Because in the end, we want to make sure we get positive outcomes for all this money and effort being put in place.
Gamble: Certainly. Now, I know that in the past you’ve been very involved in the CHIME CIO boot camp and other educational programs. In the interviews that we’ve done, with especially CIOs who are on the younger side or a little less experienced, a couple of them have talked about how much value there is in things like the Boot Camp and having CHIME as a resource. Are you going to still be able to devote as much time to these types of things?
Branzell: Obviously, one of our primary goals is member development, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for some CIOs and others through the CHIME staff investing a lot of their time and effort into developing different people. And in my case, I had a lot of people that mentored me through and gave me a lot of education opportunities. Obviously, there’ll be a lot of demands for my time. One of my goals as CEO will be to make sure that those programs are in place. I personally would like to continue teaching at the Boot Camp level and continue to provide the support there. But as my position changes — and I will be teaching at the April program — we’ll make a determination later on if that’s the best use of my time or whether another CIO might step in to fill that requirement.
Gamble: Do you plan to continue your role at Colorado Health Medical Group?
Branzell: No, this is a complete separate position. I will be resigning, effective the same day. April 5 will be my last day here; actually technically, I guess, April 4, and I’ll be starting with CHIME on April 5. So no, this is a complete and dedicated career for me supporting CHIME in this new position.
Gamble: I was going to say, that that would be extremely ambitious.
Branzell: I tend to be a little overambitious, which is a good thing, I think, but that would be bordering on crazy at that point. No, this is a whole new position. I’ll be working for CHIME as an employee of CHIME and will be resigning my position here despite having enjoyed it quite a lot here in my 10 years with what was Poudre Valley Health System, now University of Colorado Health.
Gamble: Rich Correll has been the CEO for quite a few years, and he’s going to be taking the chief operating officer position, correct?
Branzell: That is correct.
Gamble: While obviously he’s been a great leader, it seems that you can bring the CIO perspective. In working with Rich, you have two different perspectives, and that’s something that can really serve to strengthen the organization.
Branzell: If you look at it, there’s a curve with the rapid growth of CHIME, especially in the last four or five years, and this affords us the opportunity really to have the best of both worlds. We needed someone to step in that had that CIO experience, but we absolutely need the continued success in running CHIME from an administrative and association perspective, and Rich has done a fabulous job of guiding CHIME. We’ve just reached a point in our growth where we really need two people working in that capacity, and in particular, someone with CIO experience filling that CEO position and being the voice in the industry in helping guide CHIME as we move forward. But I absolutely look forward to working with Rich. He and I have worked together for many years, and he has been outstanding to work with, and I think combined together, we can do some really great things for CHIME in the HIT industry.
Gamble: You have some big shoes to fill because I’ve never seen him not smiling.
Branzell: I’ll do my best, how about that?
Gamble: That sounds good. One of the other things I wanted to touch on a little bit is your background in the military. I’m actually from a military family. My brothers and my father have spent time with different branches, and I just want to talk about how that has helped shape your current role and how you’ve been able to draw from that experience.
Branzell: I was very fortunate with my military career. I had around 11 years of active duty and just under 11 years of reserve time in which I was placed in some great positions and given a lot of responsibility at a very young age. In the military, that’s just the nature of the organization. But one of the things is they really gave me my start in HIT, and through the Health Administration Program and then some fellowships and internships I was able to complete along the way as well, which really gave me some great experience, internally and externally.
The military experience, for me, has been one that helped build my leadership skills at an early place and really rely on and work with teams. The organizations I got to work with through the military structure were extremely team-oriented, and I met some great individuals along the way who really mentored me and helped push me in new places. I don’t know if a day goes by where I don’t think of something from my military past and the service that I did there to draw upon those experiences, and apply it on a day-to-day basis.
I think probably one of the greatest things is, and it was one of the primary core values of the Air Force while I was serving in there and I think it still is, and that’s service before self. I think a lot of people come into healthcare for different reasons, but a lot come in looking for that opportunity to serve at a higher level than just any traditional industry type jobs that are out there. I think that’s one of the things that we continue to tap on. It doesn’t matter what anybody’s job is — it could be yours, it could be somebody on the CHIME staff, it can be someone providing direct patient care. In the end, we all have an obligation to make sure we’re improving healthcare, not only locally but nationally as well, and I think we all have a part to play in that.
Gamble: I’m sure that there’s also the crisis management aspect; just learning how to deal with stress.
Branzell: Again, the military is a unique environment, but the things you learn through your years of service there at a fairly young age really help you at a later point in life as you apply things. Things that for many might be a very stressful situation, you can handle in a relatively calm and benign way, because you’ve experienced what I would consider worse in other places. So you look at some of these things and say, ‘we can deal with this. We can handle it.’ And I look forward to doing that for CHIME as well as in my service capacity there as we try to help shape and guide HIT as a whole industry across our nation.
Gamble: Do you plan to keep living in Colorado?
Branzell: That’s the plan right now. I’ll telecommute where I need to and then be on the road and spend some time in Ann Arbor, some time in Washington, and wherever I’m needed, and I’ll work from here the rest of the time.
Gamble: It is really beautiful out there so I don’t blame you.
Branzell: I’m sitting in my home office right now looking at the entire mountain range, and it’s quite beautiful today.
Gamble: That’s certainly a plus. Just as a final question, I’m sure that in your time with Colorado Health and Poudre Valley that there are some lessons learned that you can apply in your new role. Anything specific you can think of or is it just more of just having that collective experience?
Branzell: Having been the CIO here for almost 10 years, there were a lot of things we did during that time that from a CIO skillset and experiential process it’s there, but I got to see some pretty unique things that most CIOs will never or rarely if ever get to do. For a period of about three years while being CIO, I was the VP of HR. So that was just a whole different skill set. And there was the experience I got to do the last two years as a CEO of a medical group, just getting some different perspectives on HIT from different perspectives of healthcare in general, and being able to apply those in different ways to advance organizations. The good news is a lot of those skill sets are very common. The other part of that is you develop new skill sets that you never had before. And it is significantly different being a CEO than a CIO, just in terms of breadth and responsibilities.
I don’t think that’ll be any different with CHIME — that is your broad breath of responsibility. You have to make sure everything is getting done at the same time, trying to choose where to focus your time for the biggest bang for the buck for your efforts. And so I’ve just been unbelievably blessed with the opportunities I’ve had here at this organization to grow and to do different things than most others would have ever gotten to do as a traditional CIO. My responsibility with that is to now apply that in this new position across this whole industry, and in particular, serving CHIME and the CHIME membership.
Gamble: You look at the last 10 years and it’s absolutely amazing to think about where we are now compared to 10 years ago.
Branzell: Not that we were just the techies taking care of the infrastructure by any means 10 years ago, because a lot of us were doing a lot of implementing in different systems. But it is a significantly different world with the responsibilities that CIOs have in organizations now. In many organizations, they are truly the drivers of transformational change and that is a huge responsibility and we need to do everything we can to support them in that.
Gamble: Absolutely. From everything we’ve heard, CHIME is extremely valuable to CIOs. So we really look forward to working with you more, and I thank you again for taking the time to speak with us. I appreciate it.
Branzell: Absolutely, my pleasure.
Gamble: All right, and I hope to see you at HIMSS.
Branzell: We will definitely see you at CHIME and HIMSS in a few weeks, and many times thereafter.
Gamble: All right, thank you so much.
Branzell: Thank you.