In the past 25 years, CHIME has undergone several changes, as the focus moved from the rise of the IT leader to the digitization and exchange of information. The goal, however, has never wavered, according to president and CEO Russ Branzell, who says it’s always been about trying to make everyone’s job a little less difficult by sharing best practices. What has changed is that in the past few years, “the motivation and mojo of everyone has picked up” to keep pace with the rapidly evolving industry. In this interview, Branzell reflects on how far CHIME has come, and where it hopes to go.
Gamble: Hi Russ, it’s always great to speak with you.
Branzell: You as well, thank you for the opportunity.
Gamble: Sure. Now, you’ve been CEO of CHIME since 2013, correct?
Branzell: Yes, almost four years. Hard to believe.
Gamble: I’m sure. What do you think has been the most significant change has been in the organization since then?
Branzell: I think it’s really the direction the Board has taken. Our philosophy has changed from being about the technology to being about the leaders. I intentionally say ‘leaders’ — not CIOs, not Foundation Firms. The model that we’ve put in place and the new vision is ‘Exceptional leaders transforming healthcare.’ And what that has done is create a new focus level. One example is we don’t have media or press people; we have partners. Your job is to help us get messaging out and stories out and help sell best practices. And vendors are no longer vendors in the traditional sense; if they’re not great, we’re not going to be great. And that’s a change in the model.
What we’re really seeing now is that the world is becoming flat, and it has happened organically. We were in four countries; now we’re in 41 countries, and that was in two-and-a-half years. As we’ve shifted this focus, the motivation and mojo of everyone has picked up. People are trying so hard to do the right things for the right reasons. Not that we were ill-intentioned in the past, but it’s just easier to focus now. And if you bounce everything we do off of that short, forward statement, it makes it really easy to get out of bed early and stay up late — because we’re doing everything for the right reasons.
Gamble: So it sounds like there has really been a change in the mindset, and the goals were born out of that foundation.
Branzell: They were. It used to be that you had to go through formal strategic planning; now we go into strategic planning meetings and say, ‘what are the right things we need to do? What do we need to do to support our Foundation Firms? What do we need to do to make CIOs, CISOs, CTOs, and CMIOs better at their jobs?’ We’re not going to fix all of their woes, but we’re going to help them get a little bit better. And if they get a little bit better and everyone does that, then healthcare gets better.
If we can start findings ways to share in such a ubiquitous way that everyone’s job is a little less difficult, then we can start making gains. It doesn’t take much gain to be markedly different — that’s what our real goal is, and I think we’re seeing that.
Gamble: As the organization has grown, membership has become more diverse. How does CHIME hope to keep meeting the needs of such a wide-ranging group of members? I imagine it’s a challenge that’s top of mind for the Board.
Branzell: I don’t want to say it’s a challenge, but rather an opportunity. We don’t want to become this gigantic entity, because I think what makes CHIME unique — and I said this at the beginning of the week to our team — is, ‘we’re about to launch a nearly 800-person family reunion. We’ve got everyone from grandparents to those who appear to be brand new to the industry, and everyone is unique. If you’re from a small, critical access hospital, maybe you can learn from Marc Probst. Maybe he can make you twice as good a CIO at your facility. Will you ever be exactly like Marc Probst at Intermountain? No, probably not. He’s a rate breed. But if you’re twice as good at your facility, what will you be able to do in rural Kansas that never would’ve been done if you tried to do it in isolation?
I think that’s true of those whole symbiotic relationship we’re trying to create. I work hard for you, you work hard for me, and somehow it’s not one plus one equals two; it’s one plus one equals three. And I think there’s some magic to that. Yes, the numbers are a little bit bigger, but more importantly, we’re seeing that diversity. And we’re seeing it with more women, minorities, and internationally. The problems are all the same; we’re just trying to get this thing done.
Gamble: Right, and it seems like CHIME’s international efforts are really starting to take shape now.
Branzell: Absolutely. What’s amazing to me is that it is spreading organically. I got an email this morning from a huge contingent of CIOs in the UK and in Ireland. They took a formal vote that CHIME will be their model going forward. They all want to be professionally certified and they want to be CHIME members. Here’s the amazing thing — I spoke to one person there about the organization, and now everyone wants in. CIOs in India, in Singapore — interest is growing so fast.
Gamble: You mentioned during the welcome address that this is the 25th Fall Forum. How many of these have you attended? Do you remember your first CHIME event?
Branzell: I have never missed a spring or fall forum in 20 years. My first was the spring event of 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. That was when we had the ice storm, which everyone remembers. I hadn’t planned on attending the CHIME event, but I ran into a person I know in the military who told me I had to go to it. I had gotten there early to play golf, so I wandered into the event. I don’t think I even paid for registration, to be honest. But I talked to someone who said, ‘you really should join; you’re the CIO.’ Twenty years later, here I am.
Gamble: Things look a little different now.
Branzell: Just a little.
Gamble: In terms of how the organization has evolved, has it been gradual, or has there been a time period that really stands out as one where it saw drastic change?
Branzell: There were really two eras. There was the growing up of the CIO and IT organizations, and that was in the late 90s and early 2000s when IT went from being the geeks who were kept in the basement, to more of an organizational tool and a way to connect people, especially as health systems started connecting. And yes, some of that was finance and capital, but it also became about health records. I think that was the first major evolutionary step up, which is what make CHIME jump up from membership in the low 200s to 900 or 1,000, and that was a plateau point.
In the last three or four years, it’s been the whole emphasis on electronic health records; the information age worker, which is everyone in the organization, but in particular, CIOs, CMIOs, CNIOs, and newer titles like chief data architect. We’re all trying to figure it out along the way.
And that disruption is a good thing. It does make some people in this room uncomfortable, but the reality is if CHIME changes at the pace of the industry, or maybe even a little faster, you’ll see the organization grow. And you’ll see the right people being included as we try to fix the broken healthcare system.
Gamble: Looking ahead, what are the big goals CHIME hopes to achieve? What do expect to be the primary focus in the next year or so?
Branzell: To fix the entire world’s healthcare system. It’s a small goal; right up there with curing cancer, ending world hunger, and achieving world peace. It’s the fourth pillar. And I know it sounds facetious, but the reality is that we do believe we’re the right mechanism to connect the entire health IT industry; to connect executives in such a way that they can start sharing ubiquitously.
I was in India about a week and a half ago, and 99 percent of their problems are no different than those of the CIOs here. One of the CIOs said his team is trying to determine cancer pathways, and so instead of spending 10 years looking for answers, he asked to be connected with the right person. So I called Chris Belmont from MD Anderson and asked if he could connect with the CIO of this large system — and by ‘large,’ I’m talking hundreds of hospitals. They spoke, and now they’re going to connect their clinical and IT leaders, and hopefully in a matter months, they’re going to start sharing clinical protocols and partner in new and exciting ways.
That took one CHIME introduction. What if we do that a thousand more times? And I think that’s what we’re going to see happen. We’re really hitting an inflection point, which is that we’re going to see ubiquitous sharing. We have tools coming online, we have people sharing, and we have people traveling across every ocean with one single purpose: to help each other. It’s such a noble thing to do.
Gamble: What’s your favorite part of the Fall Forum?
Branzell: The part I love seeing is not just old friends connecting, but new friends connecting, and in different ways. It really is like a big family reunion. When you go to other events, you have executives in one spot, the expo hall in another spot, and press people way out in another direction. We’ve created what we believe is a more collaborative environment. The press are our partners, and we want you in the thick of things.
Gamble: We definitely appreciate that. The last thing I wanted to talk about was Rich Correll, who was on stage as part of the 25th anniversary tribute, and played such a pivotal role in CHIME’s formation. Can you talk about what he has meant to the organization?
Branzell: Rich was one of the first people I met at CHIME. He really did set the stage early on as one of the four fathers of CHIME, and he always did such a great job of keeping things on track. He also said, ‘Always remember why we’re doing what we’re doing,’ and now we’re trying to take that to the next level. Rich is a great friend of mine and a great mentor, and above all, he really cares about CHIME. He’s just like the rest of us. He’s part of the family, and as he transitions to the next stage of life, he’s always welcome here and will always be a brother to so many of us.
Gamble: Great. Well, thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing you in February.
Branzell: Thank you, Kate.