At first glance, it might seem like Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and University of Mississippi Medical Center have little, if anything, in common. But the two have quite a few similarities, according to David Chou, who served as senior director of IT operations in Abu Dhabi before making the leap to UMMC. Both positions involve working closely with government and other key stakeholders, and both offer significant opportunity for growth. But where his previous role offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a facility from the ground-up, Chou’s new post affords him the opportunity to put an academic medical center on the map — a challenge he gladly accepted. In this interview, he talks about the organization’s rapid electronic journey, how he is fostering innovation, and what it’s like to make a major career change.
- Creating a model for expansion
- Data analytics on the radar
- Branding UMMC as “a place where you want to be”
- Pros and cons of being a young CIO
- IT’s seat at the table
- Rethinking BYOD — “We’re going to allow some flexibility”
- Golf, sports & family
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All the players in healthcare are consolidating. We are in a position where people are looking to us to assist them. My main role is to make sure we have a solid foundation and infrastructure to expand and to create a model that we can expand easily.
The first thing we can is improve our employee engagement and make sure folks are excited to be here. Secondly, we need to create a branding that UMMC is a place where we want to be — where you get that national recognition.
I don’t like to hear employees tell me they’re doing something because that’s the way it’s been done in the past. I always challenge them to come up with new ideas
I think the most important thing is building that relationship and instilling that confidence in my peers that we are there as a partner, and not as a stumbling block.
Traditionally, our security has been extremely tight, and maybe we have overcomplicated things a little for ourselves. I think now we’re at the point where we’re going to allow some flexibility and hopefully be a good partner with everyone in the organization.
Gamble: So now you’re back in the United States with a new set of challenges in Mississippi.
Chou: Yes. I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a great organization to be with. Obviously, there are things I miss about being international, but I’m happy where I am right now with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. We have a very strong team that’s on the ground now. I think we’re on our way to gaining some national momentum in terms of some high-achieving accomplishments.
Gamble: What are the biggest priorities on your plate right now and in the immediate future?
Chou: We’re expanding. We just went through an expansion where we’re going to be taking over another hospital in Northern Mississippi as part of our lease agreement. So we are expanding throughout the states. And there are other potential inquiries for consolidation — all the players in healthcare are consolidating. We are in a position where people are looking to us to assist them. My main role is to make sure we have a solid foundation and infrastructure to expand and to create a model that we can expand easily.
Prior to Cleveland Clinic I was with a for-profit entity called AHMC Healthcare. I was part of their core team that was heavily involved in terms of acquiring hospitals — going through mergers and acquisitions and performing the due diligence. That’s something I have done extensively in my previously roles, and I want to create that same model here for the University of Mississippi Medical Center to help them be able to put the best strategy for consolidation and acquisition. In addition, we’re doing some great things with telemedicine throughout the States so being able to support that and hopefully expand it beyond the State of Mississippi.
Gamble: A lot of regions in the country are having issues with trying to manage chronic disease and I imagine that’s something that’s on your plate as well, maybe through programs to reduce readmissions. Is that something that you’re looking at and does telemedicine play a role in that?
Chou: I view telemedicine as a separate entity. Obviously doing things operationally to reduce admissions, clinical decision support, things of that nature — that’s all on our plate as well. I see telemedicine as a separate entity that we’re going to be looking to capture to streamline healthcare for the rural areas of Mississippi. There are a lot of things we could do from operational perspective to be more efficient here, and so I kind of view that as a separate strategy.
Gamble: As far as data analytics, is that something that’s a priority?
Chou: That is on our radar. We have so many moving parts right now, but it is on our radar. I am looking extensively at it, but I think that’s probably something that’s a phase 2 approach for us. One thing I’ve noticed is that being in the southern region of the US is similar to being international in Abu Dhabi in that hiring and recruiting the talent I need is very difficult. So until I get the right folks in here that have that solid expertise, it’s not on my radar as a priority, but it is something I’m looking at for phase 2.
Gamble: That’s a common thread that we are hearing with the challenge in being able to either recruit or hold on to good people, especially depending on the area you live in. It’s something that a lot of organizations are struggling with. Are there certain things you’re doing, whether it’s education programs or other incentives for being able to recruit or hold on to top IT talent?
Chou: Obviously you have incentives, but number two, we need to increase employee engagement. My perspective is that once employees are engaged, they will stay — unless they had a great incentive to leave, in which case they probably made the right choice. If they’re an engaged employee and they have a package they can’t refuse, then I think they made the right choice in terms of looking elsewhere.
But the first thing we can do as a step forward is to improve our employee engagement and make sure folks are excited to be here. Secondly, we need to create a branding that University of Mississippi Medical Center is a place where we want to be — where you get that national recognition. When I look around, a perfect example is the Mayo Clinic. It’s not like Rochester, Minnesota is an ideal place to live, but people want to work there because of the type of work that is there and because of the recognition and the fact that the quality is one of the best. Our goal here is also to build the quality and make sure we are doing great things for the state, and to gain that national recognition so hopefully people would want to come here.
Gamble: That certainly makes sense. If you’re able to do innovative work that’s probably one of the best incentives you can get.
Gamble: Okay, so I’d like to talk a little bit about leadership. I know that you are fairly new at UMMC, but I’m sure one of your priorities is to really engage with your staff and try to get everyone on the same page and moving toward a common goal. How is that something you’ve approached in the past?
Chou: The way I approach it is with transparency. We have been very transparent in terms of what our strategy and mission is and what our vision is, and I need to make sure the team buys into that. What I do like to see is innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, and I think most employees like that as well. I don’t like to hear employees tell me they’re doing something because that’s the way it’s been done in the past. I always challenge them to come up with new ideas and new innovations.
I think that being very transparent and open that has helped in terms of my leadership style. I also have an open-door policy with the team here, and I instill that culture so that people can be creative and innovative and not be afraid to think out of the box; given that we are a state institution, that has not occurred in the past.
Gamble: Being a CIO on the younger side, do you think that’s something that works to your advantage? What do you think that younger CIOs can bring to the table to help move organizations forward?
Chou: There are pros and cons. The first impression when I meet folks is obviously that I am a little bit younger than the most traditional CIOs. But once we get into the conversation as far as the strategy and what we’d like to achieve, I think they’re able to see a new perspective. I think so far it has helped in terms of bringing new perspective and out-of-the-box thinking, because technology moves quickly. Healthcare IT always moves slower than the rate of technology, so we do have things to improve operations and improve performance and make things a lot more efficient. It’s how we’re able to utilize IT in our unique healthcare setting.
Gamble: In terms of representing the needs of IT, when you’re talking about strategic planning, how do you approach that to make sure that the goals of IT align with the goals of the organization?
Chou: It’s important for IT to get a seat at the table. We are at the table with the chancellor and the vice chancellor of the organization, and so I am there in terms of what the strategy is going to be for the entire organization. When I first joined, I think don’t IT was at the table, but now I feel that solid relationship with the vice chancellors. We do have a seat at the table, and I will be involved with all the strategic discussions, because without technology, a lot of things cannot move. I would say CIOs need to make sure IT gets a seat at that executive table where decisions are made and where strategic discussions are being held.
Gamble: Is that more challenging in the academic environment, or not necessarily?
Chou: I would say it is, because there are so many players in an academic setting. I’m not dealing with just the medical center; I’m also dealing with the medical schools and the research side. I think the most important thing is building that relationship and instilling that confidence in my peers that we are there as a partner, and not as a stumbling block.
Gamble: Is it something where it’s a benefit that, as you said before, there is one CEO instead of three separate CEOs, and maybe it’s a little easier to align the goals in that respect?
Chou: It is a little easier. Actually, our structure is that we have the CEO for the hospital, we have another CEO for the children’s hospital, and then we have the vice chancellor for the academic affairs and the research institute. But it’s a typical academic medical center setting. The good part is people work together here, which is one of the pluses I saw when I was interviewing here. I believe we have the potential for improvement and to achieve greater things.
Gamble: As far as some of the other priorities on your plate, where do you stand with things like Meaningful Use?
Chou: We qualified for Stage 1 and we’re in the process of qualifying for Stage 2, so from a Meaningful Use perspective I’m pretty confident where we’re headed. I think the next step where I want to be from a pure technology perspective is I want to get to the virtual desktop. I want to get into BYOD with personal devices. I think that’s the strategy that we will be instilling, and that’s going to bring a lot of positive momentum — both internally in our technology department where employees are extremely excited for it, and from the end user’s perspective.
Gamble: At this point, what devices are the clinicians using? Is there a variety?
Chou: It’s a variety. We do have the workstation on wheels, we do have laptops, and we do allow iPads and tablets. But I think now I want to get to a point to where they’re actually logging into the virtual desktop. In addition to the hospital stream, I have a lot of students as well from the academic side and the research side who use the latest gadgets. So I need to make sure that I can allow them to utilize whatever devices they would like to use, but that hasn’t been our policy. Traditionally, our security has been extremely tight, and maybe we have overcomplicated things a little for ourselves. I think now we’re at the point where we’re going to allow some flexibility and hopefully be a good partner with everyone in the organization.
Gamble: Because you are dealing with obviously specialists, I imagine sometimes there are different needs as far as what different clinicians are looking for and being able to manage all of that is obviously a challenge. Maybe is one way to move closer to that.
Gamble: As we touched on a little bit before, you are on the younger side. Are there people who you turn to just to bounce things off or even mentors?
Chou: My past colleagues have been great resources. I tend to keep up with what’s going on through social media and things like that. Social media has been great in my opinion — Twitter, LinkedIn, and the forums on CHIME have been great in terms of bouncing ideas around and keeping up with what’s going on in the industry. My advice for folks is to get involved, get engaged, and use the tools that are out there. People are using them right now, and they’re a great source of information gathering.
Gamble: Just as a final question, I know that since you are either in the process of moving or have just recently moved, you must have a lot on your plate. But how are you able to find some kind of work-life balance? Are there hobbies you have or things you can do to kind of get away from the stress of the job?
Chou: I’m a golf fanatic. Luckily Mississippi has really good golf courses and the region has very nice golf courses, so I play golf regularly. I am also a pretty active parent with three kids. I have a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn, so I’m a little bit busy on that end as well. But we try to stay engaged and just enjoy life. In addition to golf, my wife and I travel a lot with our family. We do a fair amount of traveling. Luckily, we were international, and so we were able to travel a lot more than we would have if we had been in the States for the last few years. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling. And I’ve done some golfing and I’m a sports fanatic, and so I’m in a good area right now.
Gamble: Are you settled in to your new location?
Chou: We’re somewhat settled in. Any time people have to move internationally, getting things shipped across takes a long time. So I’m still waiting for my containers to arrive and my household furniture and items like that, but we do have the house and everything ready. It’s just a matter of time before things get over here. But that’s the typical journey for an expat who had to live internationally; we had to deal with the same situation going to Abu Dhabi, where it took about two months for my stuff to arrive. I’m sort of used to that now, but the first time it was a bit of a shock and an adjustment.
Gamble: Sure. I can’t believe that on top of everything else, you have young children and a newborn. So you certainly have a pretty full plate right now.
Chou: Yeah, but we’re enjoying it so far.
Gamble: That’s great. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and I definitely would like to catch up with you once you’ve been at the organization a little longer to see how things are going.
Chou: Definitely, thank you for the opportunity.
Gamble: All right, thank you and best of luck to you.