Sometimes it’s the experiences that happen early in one’s career that end up having a profound impact. Long before she was a CIO, Sonya Christian had mentors who helped her understand that “the business that we’re doing is healthcare. It’s not necessarily the business of IT.” Now she is a mentor herself, and believes the onus is on CIOs to help build the next generation of leaders. In this interview, Christian discusses her top priorities for 2014 — including expanding data exchange efforts and increasing portal adoption. She also talks about the benefits of being an early adopter, how her team is looking to cut costs, and her passion for healthcare.
- Preparing for ICD-10
- Recruiting from within
- Her mentoring work with the CIO Executive Council
- Making the transition from technical leader to “motivational leader.”
- The skillset today’s leaders need
- “I have a passion for healthcare that now exceeds my passion for technology”
LISTEN NOW USING THE PLAYER BELOW OR CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO OUR iTUNES PODCAST FEED
We have had some turnover. We’ve had some consulting firms pick off one or two of our analysts, but I consider ourselves more fortunate than a lot of organizations. Of course I say that with a degree of caution knowing that the gates could open at any time.
My success as a leader is not about what I know; a lot of times it’s about who I know, and being able to network and build on those relationships to accomplish the goals that the organization has set forth.
I’ve had the privilege to work with great clinical leaders who helped me understand that the business we’re doing here is healthcare. It’s not necessarily the business of IT. We’re doing the business of healthcare and we’re using information technology tools to make that business better.
There are a lot of ‘gotchas’ in the healthcare IT arena right now, but I think the thing to keep in mind is that we do have a mission here. And that mission is taking care of our patients with high quality care at a less expensive cost.
Gamble: Okay, so you obviously have a lot going on. Are there any other major priorities on your plate for the next year or so?
Christian: Obviously ICD-10 is a big one for us. October of 2014 is when we’ll be going live with the new ICD-10 code set, so there’s a lot of work. We’ve done a lot of systems work already, and we’ve done a lot of training in our coding and HIM areas. But between the first of the year and the October go-live, we’re going to see an increase of clinical documentation and an emphasis on training, particularly physicians and other caregivers who’ll need to begin using ICD-10. Medical necessity and all of those types of things will come into consideration as we move forward over the next several months.
Gamble: Is that something where you’ve laid a lot of the groundwork and you’ll kind of start to ramp up a little bit more in the next month or so?
Christian: That is correct.
Gamble: So you have a lot on your plate. One of the themes we hear with a lot of CIOs is a concern about being able to hold onto staff with things being so busy and with having a lot of competition. Is that something that you’ve struggled with as far as being able to either recruit or hold onto good people on your team?
Christian: I think everybody is experiencing that to a certain degree. I would share that in a lot of cases, we’ve been able to retain talent simply by recruiting inside our existing organization. We have eight nurses that work on our IT team, and they all come from active nursing positions here in the hospital.
There are several advantages with that. Number one, they already know how we do business here, and so helping align our IT strategies with our business strategies is enhanced by doing that. Also, these are long-term, loyal employees — typically the type that would be less likely to job-hop over a period of time. That’s been part of our strategy, but certainly it’s not been all of it. And we have had some turnover. We’ve had some consulting firms pick off one or two of our analysts, but I consider ourselves more fortunate than a lot of organizations. Of course I say that with a degree of caution knowing that the gates could open at any time.
Gamble: I’m sure that when people see that there is that room for growth within the organization, that’s a nice motivator to stay, I would think.
Christian: I would think so as well. Our employees have a lot of pride about working at West Georgia Health. We’ve had good quality scores. We’ve had some very good patient satisfaction scores and those, coupled with employee satisfaction and physician satisfaction scores, really round us out to being a high satisfaction hospital. I won’t say that we don’t have issues that arise from time to time that have to be adjusted or have to be addressed, but overall, we find that our employee engagement is very strong at West Georgia.
Gamble: That’s a great thing to have, especially now. I wanted to talk a little bit about mentoring. We talked a little bit about that in the past, but I wanted to get into that a little more. When we last spoke, you said you were involved in the CIO Executive Council Pathways Program. I just wanted to talk about your involvement in that, and what you’re doing to help drive mentorship, especially with women in this field.
Christian: With the CIO Executive Council, I have worked to mentor three different groups over the past three years. I did two mentorships with all female participants, and the last group that I mentored had both male and female participants. I think one of the biggest skills that we need in the IT field right now is leadership skills. We need to help people who have that technical background make the transition from being a strong technical leader into being an inspirational or motivational type of leader.
We all are aware of what the continuum for technical skills looks like as you go up the management ladder. Typically, you’re more technically challenged and more technically competent when you are in the analyst role or the programming role, and you lose a lot of those technical skills as you crawl up the management ladder, but those are replaced by leadership-oriented skills. So we want to make sure people have an opportunity to do their best in their organization and to be able to move to leadership positions when the opportunity arises. We want them to be effective leaders, and sometimes that means letting go of some of the things that you’ve done in the past and embracing new skill sets.
Gamble: Do you think having strong leadership skills is that something that can be taught, or to some extent is it something where there are people who are just more prone to be successful at that?
Christian: I don’t think we can discount the fact that there are people who have a natural aptitude for leadership, but I definitely believe that leadership skills can be taught. I believe there are things that are just key. Relationship development is one of the leadership skills that we talk about. The elements of your personal leadership style are things that we talk about with our mentor group. Teaching individuals how to have crucial conversations is an important part of leadership development. How to work collaboratively definitely is one of the skill sets that are needed in today’s environment.
Gamble: I like what you said about how when you move up the ladder, you do have to obtain a different skill set, and these are things that you don’t necessarily learn in school or through different types of training. Learning those types of interpersonal relationships seems like something that can be really valuable to helping people to take those next steps.
Christian: It certainly is. I will tell you that my success as a leader is not about what I know; a lot of times it’s about who I know, and being able to network and build on those relationships to accomplish the goals that the organization has set forth.
Gamble: Right. So it’s not necessarily just mentoring women, like you said, but people who can really benefit from getting these different types of skill sets and be able to move up in the industry.
Christian: Absolutely. Women tend to be less widely represented in the information technology workforce than men do, but I count myself very fortunate. I can think of about six women CIOs that I count as close friends across the nation, and I think we’re beginning to see more and more female leaders in the work place. I don’t necessarily think that they’re better than their male counterparts, but I certainly don’t feel like they’re inferior to their male counterparts. I just like working in a playing field where every individual has an equal opportunity for success.
Gamble: In your own career path with the progress you’ve made, did you have mentors or people who just helped you along the way or even pointed you in the right direction?
Christian: Absolutely. I had both male and female mentors. I had a CIO that I worked for when I was an IT manager who strongly encouraged me to finish my MBA. He also gave me the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas inside the healthcare IT department. I worked as a project manager. I worked in operations management. I worked on the technology side of the house, and it gave me a lot of breadth having worked in different areas of the healthcare IT arena. I think his guidance really help set the stage for my becoming a CIO later.
I’ve also had the privilege to work with a lot of great clinical leaders who helped me understand that the business that we’re doing here is healthcare. It’s not necessarily the business of IT. We’re doing the business of healthcare and we’re using information technology tools to make that business better. I have a passion for healthcare now that probably exceeds my passion for information technology. This is the niche where I would choose to be. I don’t want to move out of the healthcare arena.
Gamble: Interesting. You talked about having the IT manager role — was it something where earlier in your career you expected to go into healthcare IT, or was that just how things progressed?
Christian: It actually was how things progressed. I had that opportunity to work on the advanced solid rocket motor boosters for the space program early in my IT career. One of the things we know about the space industry is that they are notoriously known for starting and terminating programs in different areas. As a part of that termination there, I moved back into the healthcare arena. I had started working with the TennCare Program out of Memphis, Tennessee, and from that just became totally immersed in the healthcare arena.
Gamble: It’s really interesting how things progressed.
Christian: It certainly is. IT is a great area, and it’s enhanced by the fact that when you’re taking care of sick individuals and helping them have a better quality of life, that takes those technical skills and puts it in to more of a personal mission. That’s what motivates me to stay in the healthcare arena. And particularly with the changes in things that we have coming down our pike, I think it’s a fabulous opportunity to watch this industry grow.
Gamble: Absolutely, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see more people eventually who do see it as an ambition to get into health IT, now that things have shaped up that way. So many people now who are CIOs have careers that just took that path. I think it will be interesting to see people who are younger saying that they specifically wanted the health IT leadership path.
Christian: I think so.
Gamble: But even in the short term there’s going to be a lot of interesting things to watch in this field.
Christian: There is, and there are a lot of challenges. And there are a lot of ‘gotchas’ in the healthcare IT arena right now, but I think the thing to keep in mind is that we do have a mission here. And that mission is taking care of our patients with high quality care at a less expensive cost, and to keep our healthcare organizations viable. I think sometimes just surviving the next several years is going to be key to a lot of healthcare organizations. If ever there was a time where we can leverage information technology to make a difference, now is the time.
Gamble: Right. Okay, I know we’ve talked about a lot, and I really appreciate you giving your time. It’s been great to hear about everything that’s happened since we last spoke, and everything that you’re doing at West Georgia so thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Christian: Well, thank you Kate. You have a good afternoon.
Gamble: Thanks, you too. I hope to speak with you again.
Christian: All right.