When Kristin Darby first considered the CIO position at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, she was intrigued by idea of being able to dip deep into cancer research and leverage technology to improve outcomes. But what really drew her in was the organization’s focus on patient-centered care and its commitment to innovation. Just over a year in, Darby is long past the getting her feet wet stage. As part of CTCA’s ultimate goal of personalizing cancer care, her team is rebuilding the analytics platform to more effectively harness data, and is utilizing the portal to educate and empower patients. In this interview, she talks about these projects, as well as how rounding has dramatically increased staff engagement, and how she manages the juggling act of being a CIO with two young children.
- Rounding checklists
- Going through a “surprise” acquisition by Tenet
- 12 years with Fresenius — “I was able to dive very deep and understand that disease.”
- A portfolio of innovation
- From Boston to Arizona
- Work-life balance with 2 young children — “It’s a very supportive environment”
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It really does create that personal connection that I think if individuals just stay in their office and focus only on their narrowed task responsibility, they don’t have the same level of engagement and purpose.
The normal portfolio of EHR optimization, ICD-10, and Meaningful Use — these are all things we do, but the personal enjoyment I get and what really excites me is being able to do things that I know directly affect the patient.
It’s an area of massive development right now from a scientific perspective where I think we’re very close to really turning this more and more into a chronic disease, and with all that development, there’s a significant amount of innovation opportunities.
That was incredibly attractive to me to know that when I see opportunity or my team has different ideas, we can actually bring it up within an organization that’s going to support us pursuing those types of innovations.
You become much more engaged, much more productive, and it really does give you naturally that balance. You’re flexing different muscles when you’re at work and engaged really in a different advanced level of knowledge, then we you go home it’s much more of the nurturing emotional connection with your children.
Gamble: That’s really interesting and when you said that at first that there is some hesitancy, did you find that as soon as one person had a positive experience they’d share it with others, and that maybe they were surprised by what they experienced when they first started doing it?
Darby: Absolutely. One of the things I gave them was just a checklist that takes two minutes to fill out. Every month when you go to do your rounding, it’s ‘did you hear any new ideas?’ ‘Were you able to solve a problem while you were rounding?’ Just different things like that that are very quick and easy. It’s amazing the little things that came out — simple things people could fix that they would see. We’ve made a significant amount of changes to workflows and to overall entertainment options for patients — different things that we wouldn’t have done if we weren’t out there actually listening to our customers. Those learnings, I think, really empower people because oftentimes it’s not advanced technology that’s needed; it’s just hearing the customer and tweaking something, or using something we already have in a different way. That really empowers individuals to say, ‘I heard this, I saw it, and I came back and solved the problem.’
Once we all have that joint ownership, even if it’s not an IT issue — maybe they see a facility’s issue or maybe they see an opportunity for pharmacy, it’s taking ownership as part of the overall team that we’re all here to deliver care to patients, regardless of what department we’re in, and owning that and going and working with other departments to make sure that opportunity’s known and the issue or opportunity is being pursued. Once those things start to get closed out and you see things moving and happening, it really does create that personal connection that I think if individuals just stay in their office and focus only on their narrowed task responsibility, they don’t have the same level of engagement and purpose.
Our goal here really is to create very much a tight family environment where people are vested in the organization, but at the most, every single person values our patients in the same way that the people that are sitting in front of the patients value them. And that we understand that the work that we provide every day actually has direct implications on that person’s battle against cancer. You have to understand that gravity, and you get that through being exposed. I think it’s pretty empowering. With a lot of things that we implement you can sit in and watch volume statistics and say, ‘we’ve seen mortality change in a certain area’ or ‘we’ve seen quality outputs change in certain areas,’ and that’s impacting people’s lives. We have to recognize that in a way that individuals make that connection between their job, because it’s incredibly empowering and rewarding.
Gamble: Absolutely. You said you’ve been there about 14 months. You were previously with Tenet, so moving to a different organization and also making a big physical move, did you have hesitancies? What really was the biggest draw in coming to CTCA?
Darby: Prior to coming to CTCA, I was with Vanguard Health System, which was a healthcare provider organization with 28 hospitals. Part of the reason I joined Vanguard was, as I said, innovation is very important to me. And it was an extremely innovative culture; very dynamic, but very supportive of pushing the envelope from a technology perspective, and that’s what I really enjoy from a personal perspective. The normal portfolio of EHR optimization, ICD-10, and Meaningful Use — these are all things we do, but the personal enjoyment I get and what really excites me is being able to do things that I know directly affect the patient immediately. It can be any type of technology innovation. And so that really attracted me to Vanguard and I loved my experience there.
Vanguard was acquired by Tenet, which I think was a surprise to all of us. Tenet is also a great organization, but I think didn’t have the same innovative culture. Tenet was very similar to an organization that I had worked with and was incredibly fond of — I spent the first 12 years of my career there — Fresenius Medical Care, which is a larger organization than I was with as it actually grew from roughly 450 facilities to 2,300. So I had kind of already done that type of process in my career. And so when I looked at Tenet, it’s a very well-respected organization, but I didn’t think that some of the attributes that personally satisfied me would necessarily be there. But it’s a great organization. So I started to look to see should I commit long-term to that organization or should I potentially pursue other options.
CTCA was one of the options that was being considered, and I think what really distinguished that organization to me was two things. One, as I said, was the first 12 years I spent with Fresenius Medical Care, which was a renal disease or dialysis provider and manufacturer of services and products. What was very compelling about that is with it being a chronic illness — one particular illness — I was able to dive very deep as a non-clinician and understand that disease and understand it in a way that I was able to connect with the patients and understand from that how technology innovation could contribute to the care process. That’s a little harder to do in the traditional acute hospital because you have anywhere from 30 to 60, 70 service lines and so it’s harder to go very, very deep to have that innovative impact. At Tenet, and certainly with the hospitals, it was going to be the reality that every community hospital or academic or tertiary center that they had has a variety of service lines, and it’s much harder to be more expert in those areas when there are so many.
One of the things that stood out to me about Cancer Treatment Centers of America is that certainly cancer is a growing disease. I think it’s an area of massive development right now from a scientific perspective where I think we’re very close to really turning this more and more into a chronic disease, and with all that development, there’s a significant amount of innovation opportunities.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America is privately held, and the shareholder group is an incredibly innovative group that truly puts everything on the side that doesn’t affect the patients. So if it’s not something valued by the patient, they don’t focus on it. At the center of everything is the focus on patient care, and they’re willing to invest and go after anything that might impact patients positively and bring that to bear as soon as possible. That was incredibly attractive to me to know that when I see opportunity or my team has different ideas, we can actually bring it up within an organization that’s going to support us pursuing those types of innovations. That’s really what attracted me here. It’s an incredibly rewarding environment with a focus on patient care that I’ve never seen anywhere in my career to date.
Gamble: It definitely seems like it was the right call. That’s always nice when you’re making such a big move like that.
Darby: Yes. It was hard. It’s always hard to leave a job that you like. I loved my previous team that I worked with. I had an amazing CEO that I worked for and I really enjoyed the job. But one of the things as you get further and further in your career is you have to understand what’s personally important to you. In my opinion, what I value is really creating a portfolio of innovative things that I’ve done throughout my career that I know have impacted patients and changed either their outlook on the journey they’re having, or have clinically changed the outcomes for individuals. It’s important to me to work in institutes where I have that ability and can make those changes. So with that, we kind of bit the bullet and picked up and moved cross country, and it’s been a great decision. We’ve been very happy with it.
Gamble: That’s great. The last thing I wanted to touch on was about your own lifestyle and work-life balance with having a young family. We talked about that when we met back at HIMSS — it can be a really tough thing. I just wanted to get some thoughts from you on how that affects the organization that you choose, knowing that you’ll be able to have some kind of balance.
Darby: Absolutely. I think it’s at the forefront of that decision process. I have two young boys, 10 months and 3 years old. With that, obviously the demands at home are extensive. My husband also has a career that he changed for me as we left Boston and relocated to Phoenix. But I think the big thing is recognizing first from a relationship perspective that we’re a team and together we figure out what’s right for us from a balance perspective to make sure the kids are always at the forefront of what we’re thinking, but also trying to make sure we have balance. And so the personal rewards we get from also having a career are part of that consideration and making sure that we’re supporting each other.
One of the things in particular about Cancer Treatment Centers of America is it truly is a family culture. One of the things that was unique when I was going through the interview process is when I started, I did not know I was pregnant. As I went through the process, I discovered I was pregnant and started the normal questions that maybe this isn’t the right time to be considering this. And so I talked to them about it and what we decided is if it was the right fit, it’s not going to matter that I’m pregnant. If it’s not the right fit, let’s just let that happen naturally, which seems fair to me. I wasn’t sure that it was the right time to move when I was pregnant, but I did accept the job and actually started when I was seven and a half months pregnant, which was very unusual. But it worked out because my husband was leaving his job, obviously because we were moving from Massachusetts. He understood that I changed jobs and decided it was perfect timing so he didn’t look for a job when moved to Phoenix. He stayed home with the baby for the first 12 weeks, which was kind of a role reversal and was an interesting experience for him, but he survived it, and I think has a great respect for stay-at-home moms, and we got our structure and support system in place here in Phoenix.
But the organization and my CEO that I work for and the shareholder group is incredibly focused on family and children, and a lot of my stakeholders here have young families. It’s a very supportive environment. Actually, one of the things I did this year was here at our location in Goodyear is open up a mother’s room, which we didn’t have but since then I’ve had five women return from maternity leave that are using it heavily, which is fantastic. If they need it it’s available and they have a private facility that’s comfortable and they can do what they need to care for their child. The organization does things like that frequently and is just very, very focused on that. It’s been a good experience.
On a personal level, it is difficult not having a family support system in the area, and so I’ve been able to convince my parents — I’m from Florida, but they have lived there my father since he was 2, and my mother since the 1960s — to sell everything in retirement and to move out here. They should be here hopefully within six months or so. I’m incredibly thrilled at the impact that will make and that they’ll also be able to be close to their grandchildren while they’re growing up.
Gamble: That’s great. It sounds like you have the right support all around, and that makes a huge difference.
Darby: Yes, it does.
Gamble: It’s funny, on a personal note, I was actually pregnant when I accepted the offer from Anthony to work for healthsystemCIO.com. It was very early on. I had to have that conversation, but I knew that he was going to be family oriented. That was something that he sold me on, and that’s made a difference. He knows that working parents will work really hard. We’re driven.
Darby: It’s a huge change in your life. I used to go home and be able to read a book or do different work at night. Now, I go home and I’m fully engaged with my children and so the time at work, you don’t waste a minute. You’re incredibly devoted because when you go home that’s where you want your mind to be. I do think it’s an interesting shift on how you change your productivity, but you become much more engaged, much more productive, and it really does give you naturally that balance. You’re flexing different muscles when you’re at work and engaged really in a different advanced level of knowledge, then we you go home it’s much more of the nurturing emotional connection with your children where you’re guiding and teaching, and I think it provides great balance throughout the day. Honestly, I think it makes me a much better mother having that balance.
Gamble: Yeah, definitely. That’s really true. I feel the same way. Well, I know you have obviously so many things going on, so I really appreciate taking all this time to speak with us. This has been really valuable and I think that our readers and listeners are definitely going to benefit from hearing about everything that you’re doing over there. So thank you so much.
Darby: Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate you touching base with me, and it was great to connect with you again.
Gamble: You too, and I hope to see you in person soon.
Darby: Yes. I’m sure we will. Take care and have a great day.
Gamble: Thanks, you too.