It takes a special type of individual to be an advocate. Whether it’s pushing for legislation, providing support for individuals, or promoting the well-being of the general public, being an advocate requires a level of determination, passion, and grit not found in many. It’s a willingness to keep pushing, even when you’re dealt a difficult blow.
According to Russ Branzell, CHIME has that in spades; and if the organization wants to continue to meet the educational and professional development needs of healthcare IT leaders, it’s going to need every bit it. Especially when it comes to the most challenging issues, like the seemingly never-ending quest to establish a national patient identifier. “When we face adversity” — and CHIME’s members and staff have, time and time again — “it amplifies the need for a little more work, a little more education, and a little more advocacy to get things moving in the right direction,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s our job as leaders and representatives to stay the course and continue to fight the good fight.”
In this interview, Branzell talks about his core objectives as president and CEO of CHIME, what the organization has learned by traveling to other countries, how it aims to help CIOs navigate an ever-changing role, and what he looks forward to most at the Fall Forum.
Gamble: Hi Russ, thank you, as always, for carving out some time to speak with us. We appreciate being able to check in on some the key issues impacting healthcare leaders. One of them is patient identification. When the National Patient Identifier Repeal Act was introduced, what was your reaction?
Branzell: First, I’ll say that we are absolutely thrilled that Congress has started to address this, and was able to remove the prohibition through their portion of the appropriations process. We’ve been working on this for a long time, and we’ll continue to do so. We did hit a bit of a snag on the Senatorial side; they’re still in the middle of appropriations, and so there are a lot of discussions going on.
But we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get the prohibition removed, whether it happens this year or in the near future, and move forward in such a way that we can appropriately address a critical patient care and patient safety issue.
Gamble: When it comes to patient identification, do you think lawmakers understand and recognize the scope of the problem?
Branzell: If that’s true — if there’s a lack of understanding — it means we haven’t done our job well enough, and we still have some educating to do. We have a responsibility to continue to educate and make sure decision-makers understand how legislation impacts healthcare leaders.
But I wouldn’t cast any blame on our staffers or any of our representatives for that reason. I believe we’re in a much different place than we were 10, 20 or 30 years ago from a technology perspective. The capability exists today to do great things for patients.
If you look at what’s happened during the last few years, there was a direct order from Congress for HHS to create a Medicare identification system. The DoD and VA are going to use a shared system to identify military members, their dependents, and retirees, which I happen to be, so I’m thrilled with that. So it’s not as if the government doesn’t recognize the need for it; we just haven’t reached a point of complete understanding and agreement as to how it can be done.
Gamble: With many advocacy issues, especially patient identification, there are starts and stops, which I can imagine can get very frustrating. Is it difficult to get past that?
Branzell: I wouldn’t call it frustrating; but you do lose a bit of momentum on occasion and have to pause for a while. And that can happen for multiple reasons, whether it’s a congressional break, a change in priorities, or any political issues that can be distracting.
It’s our job as leaders and representatives to stay the course and continue to fight the good fight. I’ve never heard anyone in this space say, ‘X or Y has occurred, so we should stop.’ No one has ever said that. If anything, when we do face adversity, it amplifies the need for a little more work, a little more education, and a little more advocacy to get things moving in the right direction. I give great credit to our volunteer members, our Policy Steering committee, and of course, two of the hardest working people in Washington D.C., Leslie Krigstein and Mari Savickis, who fight every single day.
Gamble: On the flipside, when you get those wins, I’m sure it’s extremely rewarding.
Branzell: It is. There’s just a different tone in general, in Washington D.C. and other places, as we’ve tried to proactively address issues on the frontend, in a collaborative way. I give tremendous credit to our team and to our members. No one tries to approach anything on a partisan basis.
At the CHIME Advocacy Summit, we saw representatives from both sides of the aisle listening to each other and complementing each other on the work being done. They were almost in complete agreement on the most important issues — you never see that in the news. And yet, we saw four representatives up there who only debated or disagreed on small tangents. The vast majority of the time they were in complete unison. I wish the whole country could have seen that.
Gamble: I agree. You had people who couldn’t be further apart politically, standing on the same stage together, hashing out key issues. It’s inspiring.
Branzell: It is.
Gamble: Another topic I want to talk about is the Opioid Task Force, which was first announced about two years ago. What they’ve been able to do in such a short time, through the Playbook and other educational opportunities, has been amazing. How do you think they’ve been able to hit the ground running, and to continue that momentum?
Branzell: I give tremendous credit to the leadership of so many people, especially Ed Kopetsky, Jim Turnbull, Bruce Cerullo, and Susan Aldrich. But I think this issue in particular issue — this burden on our society — has such a common thread in so many peoples’ lives.
It’s a disease. It’s a scourge on our society that we’re in this situation, and it’s a clinical burden we have to solve. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t has been connected, at least in some way, to this epidemic. So if the work we’re doing helps just one person, it’s worth the effort.
Gamble: I feel like the more topics like addiction are discussed on this level, the more it can help erase some of the stigma around mental health issues.
Branzell: Absolutely. At last year’s Fall Forum, we had trainers come in and teach us how to use Naloxene (Narcan). I won’t leave my house without it after hearing the stories from those who have been affected. Yes, these are people who are addicted to drugs, but this is a disease. These are daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, and friends. We have to do everything we can to help these individuals get healthy and get their lives back. It has nothing to do with how they got addicted and what they’ve done since they got addicted. It has to do with the fact that we’re human beings, and we should be helping each other. In this area in particularly, CHIME can make a big difference. There are some things that are outside of our clinical range in terms of making an impact; this isn’t one of them. We can help with this, and we will.
Gamble: Another thing I want to talk about is a topic that came up several times during the Advocacy Summit, which is providing the whole patient care picture. It seems it’s moving more into the CIO’s realm than in years past.
Branzell: If you had told me five years ago that we would be this close to patient care, I would’ve been surprised. Granted, there were CIOs who came from a medical, nursing, or radiology background, and they applied clinical expertise in their roles, but it was rare. Now, we hear about CIOs who are on the clinical taskforce and order set development teams — and these are people who don’t necessarily have a clinical background. They’re just trying to do everything they can to help make a difference.
I’ve said it before; we’re basically one degree of separation from patients right now. We’re seeing this become the norm, and I think that’s part of the transition that’s occurring in our industry. We’ve gone from the old mindset of the technical CIO who’s down in the basement making sure everything works, to the CIO who’s helping to run clinical and business aspects of the organization.
Gamble: Is CHIME more focused now on helping CIOs and other leaders become better-rounded?
Branzell: We’ve focused a lot, through educational opportunities and lectures, on the role of the transformational, revolutionary 3.0 leader. We want to help organizations grow and mature to the point where they can get the best from these disruptive changes we’re seeing.
Gamble: Right. Let’s talk about CHIME International — what are some of the initiatives taking place now, or being planned?
Branzell: Our approach is to find the incumbent leaders and empower them with CHIME’s toolkit, whether it’s programming, education, networking, or certifications, and empower them to be CHIME. Yes, CHIME is an association and a legal entity. But, first and foremost, it’s a group of people and leaders who want to make a difference, and that’s what we’re trying to spread.
We’ve found that there’s a universal truth out there; everyone working in healthcare IT generally has the same challenges. No matter what type of government or payment they have; no matter where they are in the maturity curve, we all have the same goals: to find ways to reduce costs, improve safety, and improve outcomes. And we have a tremendous opportunity to learn from each other.
We have chapters in eight countries, including Italy, India and the U.K., to name a few, and it’s constantly growing. But it isn’t us going in and planning a CHIME flag in the middle of their country. It’s us saying, ‘we want to know who you are, and how we can help.’ In recent weeks, we’ve had representatives in Germany, Italy, and Singapore, as well as working with international groups at user group meetings in Kansas City and Wisconsin.
We’re willing to do just about anything and work with anybody because we believe that if we’re all in this together, we’re going to solve problems a lot faster.
Gamble: In discussions we’ve had with CIOs in the U.K., it’s been so interesting to hear how many similarities exist.
Branzell: Absolutely. Things like cybersecurity, cloud, and data sharing are universal issues. And then you get into fourth generation technologies, genomics, and concierge medicine — the list goes on. It is the most exciting, and the most brain-stretching time we’ve ever had.
Gamble: Agreed. The last thing I want to cover is the upcoming Fall Forum. From your perspective, what do you look forward to most at this event?
Branzell: From a selfish perspective, what I love most about the Fall Forum is that it’s an opportunity for people to join together as a group, catch up, share ideas, commiserate, and find ways to energize each other. I refer to it as a unique fraternal environment where everyone comes together in ways that you don’t see at other conferences.
From a CHIME leadership perspective, this is going to be an amazing program. We’ve got some great speakers lined up, and our track sessions and Leadership from the Edge programs are really strong.
At the same time, we also want people to be able to relax and catch their breath, and leave feeling energized, both mentally and physically, and ready to move forward when they return to their organizations. We want folks to walk out of there with hope, with some new ideas, and maybe a different perspective.
Gamble: CHIME always puts together a great event, and I look forward to hearing from the speakers and catching up with old friends. Thank you again for your time, and I’ll see you in Arizona.
Branzell: Thank you, Kate.