“People will find a way to use technology, whether we sanction it or not.”
It’s a harsh reality health IT leaders face on a daily basis. But it’s also an opportunity, particularly if you’re CIO at an independent health system residing in a sea of large IDNs. At least, that’s how Christopher Timbers chooses to view it. If NorthBay wants to remain competitive, it’s not enough to merely offer the latest tools and technologies — it must be done in a way that “truly enhances” both the clinician and patient’s experiences.
Recently, healthsystemCIO had a chance to speak with Timbers about how his team is working toward its goal of making NorthBay “an easy place to practice medicine,” which means communicating effectively with users and responding quickly to issues that arise. He also talks about the pros and cons of being a longtime Cerner shop, what he learned from his mentors Dr. Michael McCoy and Stephanie Reel, and why he relocated across the country (again) to come to NorthBay.
- Working w/ Dr. Michael McCoy in the 90s: “He was a brilliant strategic planner.”
- Learning ITIL & project management as a consultant
- First CIO role at Suburban Hospital
- Stephanie Reel’s “unrelenting drive” to achieve user satisfaction
- NorthBay’s appeal: “It checked all the boxes for me.”
- Benefits of having a financial background
- Increased focus on patients: “If you’re not innovating and interacting with customers, you’re going to become irrelevant.”
- IT’s impact on market share
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I’ve always been interested in how to make a more seamless experience for the patient. NorthBay had all the pieces off the puzzle — it was a matter of making it all work together, with IT being a big component of that.
When I was sitting down with hospital directors in various departments, helping them put together the budget, it helped me understand what they did, at least from a business perspective. It helped me understand how those departments function, how they’re organized, and what they do.
Each stop on my resume was a critical building block to get me where I am today and to enable me to be successful in the role I’m in today. Each of them brought a great experience, either through the people or through the organization.
For a long time, CIOs have wanted to have a bigger presence at the executive table. We’re in an era now where we have that, and people are looking to us to help deliver the technologies that will make a difference for the patient’s experience.
Gamble: You’ve been with North Bay for about four years?
Gamble: Looking at your LinkedIn profile, it looks like you had other CIO roles, but on the other side of the country. So what was it that made you interested in this opportunity?
Timbers: I was very fortunate early in my IT career. I worked at a community hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., that was acquired by UCLA. As part of that, I got to work pretty closely with their CIO, Dr. Michael McCoy, in the mid-90s. He was a brilliant strategic planner. I worked with him throughout the acquisition and merger. That’s when I really realized that I wanted to position myself to become a CIO.
I was fascinated with the work he was doing. I was very impressed, and I remember thinking, this is what I want to be when I grow up, so to speak. And so I started trying to engineer my career to get to the CIO role. But it can be challenging making that leap, so I held a variety of roles. I worked for Perot Systems for a while, which was a great experience for me because I didn’t come from a technology background. I actually started my career in healthcare and financing and then moved over to IT. I didn’t have some of the foundations of IT, and so working with Perot gave me an opportunity to learn about ITIL, project management, and some of the more operational aspects of IT.
I learned that when you’re at the senior director level trying to make the jump to the VP level, there’s a lot of competition. I had been working with a recruiter who said, ‘How geographically flexible are you? For every CIO role we have in California, we probably have double or triple the applicants because of the number of people who want to get out of the cold and live in sunny California.’ And so my family and I decided we would consider living in other parts of the country. I was offered my first CIO role at Suburban Hospital in Maryland. It was a great opportunity, not only career-wise, but to live somewhere different and experience a different lifestyle. When I had been there for about a year and half, the hospital was actually acquired by Johns Hopkins.
I was able to work in a few different roles, but what was really great was the opportunity to work alongside Stephanie Reel, who is one of the prominent CIOs in the industry. I learned an immense amount. We looked at our adventure on the East Coast thinking we’d be there maybe five years, but in our hearts we’re Californians — the desire to come back was always there. We ended up being there almost eight years, a little longer than we expected.
At that point the opportunity with NorthBay came up, and it really checked all the boxes for me. I was particularly interested in the fact that it wasn’t just a hospital organization; it also had the clinical side, and so it offered the full spectrum of care. We’re also part owners of Western Healthcare Advantage, which is a managed care health plan here in Northern California, along with Dignity Health.
And so for me, the appeal was in that full continuum of care. I’ve always been interested in how to make a more seamless experience for the patient. NorthBay had all the pieces off the puzzle — it was a matter of making it all work together, with IT being a big component of that.
Gamble: Sure. You talked about working with Stephanie Reel during your time at Johns Hopkins. Is there anything that stands out as a learning experience, or was it just watching how she operates as a leader?
Timbers: She has an unrelenting drive to achieve fantastic customer satisfaction. She’s always thinking about the end user and end user experience, and how we can make it as positive as possible. It was amazing to watch. I think it’s a big driving factor in how she manages an incredibly complex organization. She has both the university side and Johns Hopkins Medicine, and so she manages both healthcare and academics, and has the same passion for both sides.
Gamble: You also mentioned having a background in finance. How does that play into your leadership philosophy?
Timbers: It’s interesting. My degree was in Business Administration with a minor in information systems, and also a minor in English literature. My first job in healthcare was in the finance area doing budgeting and decision-support, and I think that helped me in two ways.
One, when I was sitting down with hospital directors in various departments, helping them put together the budget, it helped me understand what they did, at least from a business perspective. It helped me understand how those departments function, how they’re organized, and what they do. And so when I became an IT director, I had a pretty good idea of what a laboratory department did, or what a pharmacy department did, or the difference between med-surg and ICU. It gave me a good foundation of the business side of a hospital and how it operates.
The other positive is having a good relationship with my colleagues in finance; being able to talk with the CFO and use some of the same vocabulary. It helps them understand that I have a background looking at the cost and financial aspects of what we do; it’s not one of those ancillary things I dread, but something I embrace and approach pretty readily. I think it also helps when they know you have that understanding when you’re putting together cost proposals and you have that background for doing business cases and things like that.
Gamble: And so it’s about taking those experiences you’ve had in different roles with different organizations and weaving it together?
Timbers: Yes. I would say that each stop on my resume was a critical building block to get me where I am today and to enable me to be successful in the role I’m in today. Each of them brought a great experience, either through the people or through the organization. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
Gamble: The last thing I wanted to ask is actually a very broad question. When you look at where the health IT industry is going, what excites you most, and what scares you most?
Timbers: I think we touched on this a bit earlier, but for the first time in my career in healthcare IT, there’s so much more focus on the patient-facing aspect of what we do. Initially, it was just providing a portal for patients to use; now, it’s looking at the different ways patients interact with us. Some of our success as an organization — our ability at NorthBay to stay independent — is directly tied to how effectively we can do that; how effectively we can keep patients at North Bay wanting to engage with us through new technologies.
I think CIOs in healthcare, and all industries, are facing a lot of pressure. If you’re not innovating and you’re not out there interacting with customers, you’re going to become irrelevant and probably be replaced. To me, the challenge is, how do you do that effectively, while at the same time managing legacy systems that are still complex and still critical, managing security threats, and keeping the lights on and the network up and running? The job has become immensely more complex. And that’s challenging, but it’s also exciting. For a long time, CIOs have wanted to have a bigger presence at the executive table. We’re in an era now where we have that, and people are looking to us to help deliver the technologies that will make a difference for the patient’s experience.
Gamble: It’s a really exciting time. I think it’s important to step back and look at that. Everyone is, understandably, worried about how all the pieces are going to come together. But to see that progress really is amazing.
Timbers: Yes. I’d say for the first time in the last five years, I feel like we have a direct impact on our competitiveness in the marketplace. Before, we were serving our internal customers, and that’s critical. Making systems easy for them to use has a big impact, because if nurses aren’t spending a lot of time fighting with the computer, they can spend more time interacting with patients and their families. That’s a positive, but it’s a downstream effect. Now we’re having direct impact on our competitiveness in terms of the technologies we’re putting out there, and how patients interact with us.
Gamble: Right. Well, that about covers what I wanted to talk about. Thanks so much for your time. This has been really interesting, and it sounds like a really great organization you guys have.
Timbers: I’m very proud of the organization.
Gamble: Great. I’ll definitely be in touch, and hopefully we can speak again down the road.
Timbers: Sounds great. Thank you.
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