When an organization is acquired, it’s easy for the CIO to feel like it’s the end of the road. But Ken Gilles, who was CIO at Innovis when it was bought by Essentia in 2008, saw it as a new beginning, and six years later, his role with the organization is going strong. In this interview, Gilles talks about the approach he took during the M&A process, the Epic migration effort that has evolved from “organized chaos” to a “science,” and the “big leaps” his organization is making in telehealth. He also discusses being a Pioneer ACO, Essentia’s big plans with data analytics, and the tipping point when it comes to in-house software development.
- Patient engagement touch points
- From programmer to CIO — “I’ve always wanted to be in a leadership position”
- Lessons learned from M&A
- Working with Dennis Dassenko
- Balancing regional & system roles
- “The pace of the change just continues to ratchet up.”
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I wanted to get to that position of being able to make more of a difference. I like being more tied to the business and understanding the business and how we can help drive the business versus just being a provider of technology.
It’s putting your guard down and rolling up your sleeves and saying, ‘where can I help,’ versus ‘I’m going to oppose this with everything I can because I don’t want integration.’ It’s saying, what’s the right thing to happen for the organization?
It’s a balance, and it’s not sometimes an easy balance. You have to make a conscious effort to be rounding and be visible in the regions and the corporate level.
The ability for us to do more with the technology is exciting, but it’s also a challenge, and it’s hard to stay in front of some of this stuff.
Gamble: How have you been able to manage the patient engagement piece and hit those numbers with the portals?
Gilles: We had a lot of teams wrapped around how do we improve that in each of the regions, and we put a lot of emphasis on all of the different touch points with the patient where we could potentially get them to engage or to sign up for our MyChart or MyHealth patient portal, and I think we’ve seen some really good success in that area. We started out with just when the patient was visiting with the physician, the physician would mention it. Now we have the receptionist, we have the nurse, we have the physician, and when we do callbacks or discharge phone calls, we mention it. Every opportunity or touch point we’ve got, we’re trying to engage that patient.
Gamble: That’s something that we found has been tough for organizations of different sizes. It’s tough no matter where you are.
Gilles: And then once you get the patient enrolled, you still have to get them to use it to get credit for some of those metrics, so that’s the secondary challenge. We’ve come up with ways to engage them once they’re enrolled and that’s seemingly been effective.
Gamble: Is it a challenge with patients having the technology they need or access to technology in their homes, things like that?
Gilles: Surprisingly not. We’re a rural, somewhat elderly population, but the thing that I found fascinating is the largest number of users we have is the elderly. If you can imagine, the young folks all want everything electronic and all that, but the younger folks don’t sick very often. Our elderly population are the major users of MyHealth, which I would have never dreamed would happen.
Gamble: That’s interesting.
Gamble: It just shows you never can tell. Now, I wanted to switch gears a little bit and just talk about your career path. From looking at LinkedIn, it seems you’ve been in this industry for a while, but looking back to when you first stepped into the CIO role, what is it that attracted you to the position?
Gilles: I guess I’ve always wanted to be in a leadership position. You can see from my LinkedIn I’ve gone through all of the ranks of IS, starting at a programmer and all the way up. I really wanted to get to that position of being able to make more of a difference. I like being more tied to the business and understanding the business and how we can help drive the business versus just being a provider of technology.
I always strived to know more about the business and know more of how we could make a difference, and I got that opportunity actually when I came to Fargo here. And you can also see the progression there too. Our organization was merged with another and then we were bought out by Essentia Health. So there have been a whole lot of changes in that process, but that’s the progression.
Gamble: Going through the process when Innovis was bought, it’s something so many organizations are going through right now. I was wondering if you had any words of advice for CIOs who are going through that or might be going through it soon.
Gilles: That’s an interesting question. I go to this meeting every year called the IT Summit and we were talking about creating a support group for all the folks who were CIOs who are now Associate CIOs, because it’s getting to be a pretty big group.
I look back at what I went through. When I heard about we were getting bought out, the first thing I thought was, ‘Geez, I’m probably not going to have a job. They’re not going to need two of us or three of us.’ There were actually three CIOs at the time. You get past that first few days of, ‘Oh my God,’ and then you get into, ‘Okay, I like this organization and I want to work here — how can I make a difference?’ It’s putting your guard down and rolling up your sleeves and saying, ‘where can I help,’ versus ‘I’m going to oppose this with everything I can because I don’t want integration.’ It’s saying, what’s the right thing to happen for the organization, and how can you be a part of it and make a difference? The resistance I’ve seen in some people — you can just tell they’re not happy. And if that’s how it’s going to be, you need to make a decision if you want to be a part of it or you don’t.
Early on, I just said, ‘I want to be a part of this thing.’ I did my research on Essentia Health — it’s a great organization. They’re very progressive, one of the pioneer ACOs. There are so many good things happening here that I wanted to be a part of. The other thing is I’ve worked with Dennis Dassenko now for five or six years and he has been very good about giving me some corporate level responsibilities and some regional level responsibilities so I actually feel like I’m making a difference. I think that’s key.
On the other side of it too, I would just say even working with Dennis is just putting out there that I’m not going to resist this stuff. I’m going to help and I’m going to do what you need and what we need to do as an IS organization to support the organization and our customers, and it’s worked out very well.
Gamble: You don’t want to use your energy on fighting something that’s going to happen, but instead, putting it to better use.
Gilles: Right. If there’s something worth discussing, we do that, but we always go back to what’s best for the patient, what’s best for the organization, and what’s best for our customers, and let that be our driving force.
Gamble: Now, for you having responsibilities at the regional and the corporate level, I imagine that that’s something that that’s interesting. Is it just a matter of balancing the two or are they really just in line with each other at most times?
Gilles: Honest to God, it’s quite a balance. We’re a matrix organization. I have a number of people reporting to me at the corporate level, and a lot of the folks in the regional levels don’t report to me. You’re always trying to make sure you’re walking a fine line and not providing direction where the direction needs to come from their immediate leader, versus me, the oversight at the region level. You have those challenges, and we’ve worked through all that.
The other thing I would say is a challenge is just making sure you’re spending enough time at each of those areas. If I’m spending a lot of time at the corporate level, the folks in the region say, ‘What happened to Ken?’ It’s really a balance, and it’s not sometimes an easy balance. You have to make a conscious effort to be rounding and be visible in the regions and the corporate level.
The other piece of it for me has been the traveling. It gets to be a lot. It’s a commitment to make that happen but I like to do a lot of things face to face. We use a lot of video but in certain situations, you just want to be in the same room. I travel to Duluth quite a bit which is a five-hour drive, and then Brainerd is not too bad. That’s about a two-hour drive, so you can do a lot of day trips there, and it’s not bad. I would say there are still some challenges in that whole process.
Gamble: I guess it’s not the right position if you don’t want to travel.
Gamble: Does that get tough in the wintertime?
Gilles: It’s interesting. I’ll just say that.
Gamble: Right, absolutely. Well, we’ve covered a lot. I don’t know if there was anything major you wanted to talk about that we missed. I wanted to make sure I gave you that opportunity.
Gilles: I think you’ve actually touched on most of the things. I was just thinking of some of the challenges we face as CIOs. The pace of the change just seems like it just continues to ratchet up in the amount of change in the technology — you mentioned patient engagement, but we’re getting into trying to integrate the device data from patients and from centers and these types of things. The ability for us to do more with the technology is exciting, but it’s also a challenge, and it’s hard to stay in front of some of this stuff. And for us, our organizational growth just continues organically, adding on to the hospitals and building buildings and then through the affiliate program and other mergers and acquisitions and those kind of things to feed our ACO strategy. The point being is a lot of those things really are challenging us and our staff in order to keep up.
Gamble: I imagine it’s tough because you can’t say, ‘Hey, it’s going to slow down soon,’ because you know that that’s not the case.
Gilles: Right. And a lot of these things aren’t optional. We have to do them to stay and keep at pace with the organization and what’s happening in the industry.
Gamble: I imagine it’s tough to hold on to some of the good people, either because of the workload or just losing them to other organizations.
Gilles: Yeah, early on when we went through some of these mergers, that was definitely the case. We lost some good people just because of the unknowns. But we’ve actually done pretty well over the last couple of years here in terms of keeping people. I think one of the things that really benefited us is being able to provide opportunities for people. We’re large enough — we’re 325 people in IS — that people can move around within the IS organization and find new challenges and new opportunities, which sometimes in smaller organizations might not be available. I think that’s really helped us.
Gamble: Alright, well that’s all I had, but I’d certainly like to check back with you down the road and talk about everything going on, especially on the analytics front.
Gilles: Sure, just give me a call.
Gamble: All right. Thanks so much for you time. I appreciate it.
Gilles: Okay. I’ll talk to you later, Kate.