In 2008, Tom Bres was in his 19th year with IBM, and Sparrow Health System wasn’t heavily focused on health IT. Five years later, Bres is leading the organization through a large-scale Epic implementation as its vice president and CIO. What a difference five years makes. Recently, healthsystemCIO.com spoke to Bres about the organization’s reinvestment in IT, the all-hands-on-deck effort required to go from an environment of paper records and disparate systems to an Epic customer, and the critical role clinicians are playing in Sparrow’s transformation. He also discusses how the organization is leveraging mobile apps to increase patient engagement, Sparrow’s partnership with the Mayo Clinic, and his thoughts on talent management and leadership.
- Partnering with Mayo to enable e-consults and share best practices
- Stepping into an Epic decision
- From IBM to Sparrow—“a lot of it was the passion for healthcare in my community”
- Leadership means listening
- Don’t underestimate talent management
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We actually have embedded that into our iSparrow application so that as physicians are doing their work on a day-to-day basis, they can click on a link that will take them to the AskMayoExpert Database and they can view what Mayo’s perspective on a given situation would be.
At the time that I was talking to Sparrow, they were going through the Epic decision process. They hadn’t signed a contract yet, but they had tentatively set that direction and selected it. I would say that I got to come in and confirm that decision.
The challenge of what Sparrow was about to embark on — the investments that they wanted to make, and the progress that the board and the executive team here had set as a goal relative to information technology — was and is really exciting.
A lot of it comes down to people leadership. That is maybe a little bit of a cliché, but talent management in our business is as critical as anything right now.
I’ve really emphasized at Sparrow those emotional competencies as much or more than the cognitive ones, so that we can build leaders and build really good communication and collaboration skills. Those things are often what make or break the success of a team or an organization.
Gamble: Another thing I saw was that Sparrow was added to Mayo Clinic’s Network, and I wanted to talk about this. I guess the gist of it is that patients at Sparrow hospitals or clinics have access to Mayo Clinic’s doctors. Can you explain that a little bit?
Bres: You bet. That’s been very exciting for us. We struck up sort of an informal dialogue with Mayo a couple of years ago now as we were seeking to visit some of the best institutions in the country to try to learn from them, and Mayo was one that we visited. And it just happened to be at a time when Mayo was creating this network, and so we were the fifth health system in the country that they selected. There’s a rigorous application process that you go through. And as I mentioned, we didn’t really anticipate that going into our meeting with them, but it turned out that there were a lot of synergies between our organizations. The formal relationship that we have is just what you described. We have the ability to do something called an e-consult, where if one of our physicians has a situation where they want to seek guidance from Mayo or the patient requests to seek guidance from Mayo, rather than getting on an airplane or driving to a Mayo site, we now can electronically exchange information about that case and have Mayo experts review it and participate in the care process.
We also have access to all of Mayo’s expertise and their library of online research information and so whether a physician — just on their own or as part of a patient case — wants to learn from Mayo studies or their best practices, we now have unique access to that as well. We actually have embedded that into our iSparrow application so that as physicians are doing their work on a day-to-day basis — rounding with patients, visiting with the patients, and doing their charting in the iSparrow application — they can click on a link that will take them to the AskMayoExpert Database and they can take a look and view what Mayo’s perspective on a given situation would be. So it’s been a real powerful relationship. Who knows where it will lead from there, but those are the two formal aspects that we have at this point, and it’s been exciting to be able to bring that capability to mid-Michigan.
Gamble: Oh sure, and I imagine if you’re trying to recruit top physicians that that’s a nice plus.
Bres: You bet.
Gamble: From an IT standpoint, what was required? Is Mayo on the same system?
Bres: They’re not, and so there were some interface and some data exchange type of things that we had the opportunity to work out with them and so we’ve gotten to know some of their technology personnel and have been able to learn from each other, frankly, in that process. It was fairly straightforward. It didn’t take all that long to be able to set up an ability to produce these e-consults, but there certainly was some technology involved to make that happen.
Gamble: Before when you were talking about when the Epic selection process started, that’s right around the time that you started. I wanted to talk about how you made the jump from a different industry into healthcare and how you were recruited, and whether you knew that coming in you were going to be part of the selection process for a new system.
Bres: Sure. I started with Sparrow in September of 2008, so I’ve been here about four and a half years now. At the time that I was talking to Sparrow, they were going through the Epic decision process. They hadn’t signed a contract with Epic yet, but they had tentatively set that direction and selected it. I would say that I got to come in and confirm that decision, and I did a fairly extensive confirmation process. My experience with IBM — and I was there almost 20 years — the last 10 or so I was in IBM’s software business. I did have and do have a fairly good understanding of software relationships and applications and contracts, and so it was really perfect timing from my perspective when I came in and had the ability to finalize that and then launch the project.
I loved my time with IBM and continue to maintain many relationships and have great friends there. But to your question about how I was recruited and made the jump to this industry, a lot of it was just the passion for healthcare in my community. I was born and raised in Michigan and moved around a little bit with IBM before coming back to Michigan. But the challenge of what Sparrow was about to embark on — the investments that they wanted to make, and the progress that the board and the executive team here had set as a goal relative to information technology — was and is really exciting. And so to be able to turn that around and to see the IT improvement that we’ve seen and to do that for your neighbors, your family, your friends — Lansing’s a fairly sizable city, but it’s not so big that Sparrow impacts everybody’s lives — that has been an exciting and rewarding challenge.
Gamble: I would think that that’s an interesting situation to step into for you first CIO role; what has turned out to be a multi-year project and is something that’s really changing healthcare in the community.
Gamble: I wanted to get some of your thoughts on leadership and what do you think makes an effective leader, especially in this field. And I wanted to talk about when you started at Sparrow, what your strategy was in terms of kind of getting buy-in with the staff and developing the right culture.
Bres: Well, there are a lot of great questions embedded in that sentence or two that you just stated. I’ll maybe start with just the leadership part of it and how I started, which was just to do a lot of listening, and I think that’s really important and something I brought with me and learned at IBM in my relationships with clients and customers there — that you have to listen and understand people’s perspective and learn before you can be successful doing anything. And so I did a lot of that. Even though certainly a high-level vision and direction had been set, there was still a lot to learn about what maybe hadn’t worked before, why it hadn’t worked, what did work, and why it did work before, and a lot of it comes down to people leadership. That is maybe a little bit of a cliché, but talent management in our business is as critical as anything right now, especially in the Epic world where there’s so much competition for people.
And so understanding the types of skills that you need in an organization to be effective, and getting people in the right places where they’re motivated and excited to take on whatever challenge that you put in front of them and that they have an opportunity to grow and excel—those are all, to me, more important than any kind of particular technology skill or background. I’ve really emphasized at Sparrow those emotional competencies as much or more than the cognitive ones, so that we can build leaders and build really good communication and collaboration skills. Those things are often what make or break the success of a team or an organization more so than what technology you pick or what technical skills you possess.
Chapter 4 Coming Soon…