When Liz Johnson learned she was the recipient of the 2019 CHIME Outstanding Service Award, her immediate reaction was surprise, because for the longtime advocate, educator, and healthcare IT leader, it was never about recognition. Instead, the long hours she has poured into reading and translating rules, testifying on the Hill, and listening to others was about one thing: improving care.
At the CHIME19 Fall Forum, healthsystemCIO spoke with Johnson about what she has gained during her decades of service to the industry, the issues closest to her heart – including patient identification and the opioid epidemic; the difficult decision to retire from Tenet; and the enormous “privilege” it is to be able to represent the industry and articulate real needs.
Gamble: Hi Liz, it’s great, as always to speak with you. First off, congratulations on receiving the CHIME Outstanding Service Award.
Johnson: Thank you. It was so unexpected. I was really touched to be recognized by my peers. It’s so gratifying when you realize that people see what you do and appreciate it. And that’s not why we do it; we do it because we have such passion for the work that we do. I’ve always felt it was my privilege to be able to represent the industry and try to get our voice out there and articulate real needs. To be the voice for a group that’s so dedicated to healthcare, and to be recognized by them, means so much.
It’s funny; right after I retired [as Chief Innovation Officer with Tenet Healthcare], I was speaking with Russ Branzell, and he asked, ‘We’re not going to lose you, right?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m in it for the long term.’ As long as I can stay relevant and engaged in the industry to a deep enough level that I can understand the issues we’re facing in a real way, I feel like I can be that voice.
Gamble: Of course you’re referring to your retirement from Tenet Health earlier this year. I’m sure that wasn’t easy. What factored into that decision?
Johnson: In all candor, my husband had retired 14 years earlier, and we had talked about it several times. I was at the point where I had done all the things I wanted to do, so it felt like the opportune time.
Interestingly, I had planned to retire a year earlier. But when Tenet hired a new CIO — Paola Arbour, who is fantastic — the CEO (Ronald A Rittenmeyer) asked if I could stay on for a while to help with the transition. Paulo certainly didn’t need any leadership lessons; it was more about providing institutional knowledge and helping her to learn the ropes — not from an industry standpoint, but in terms of how Tenet works and what the culture is like.
I’m really glad I did it. She gave me the opportunity to be the chief innovation officer, which I enjoyed. It gave me the chance to do things like Sprints, Lightning Round (which is similar to Shark Tank), and agile training — that’s where the future is. It was a wonderful way to end my career. I was able to gain knowledge and exposure, and I think it helped her as well.
And of course, my kids have wanted this for a long time. That also played a role.
I have to say, every employer I’ve had — including Tenet — has always been supportive of the fact that family comes first. And when a major event happens, good or bad, that’s my priority. Because they know that when I’m on the job, I’m there 100 percent. I was fortunate to have great employers who allowed that, and understood it.
Gamble: Hopefully things will continue to go in that direction.
Johnson: I think they will. It’s the concept of thoughtful leadership. As we’ve learned over the years, people have more in their lives than just work. And if you recognize that, and support it, they’ll be much more loyal, and more engaged.
Gamble: Being retired, do you find you’re able to use your time better and focus on the areas that are most important to you?
Johnson: Yes, especially things like policy. I always read the rule in their entirety when they came out, but it was often at 10 or 11 p.m. after a long day. Now when a new rule or a blog comes out, I can read it, think about, and have a discussion with peers as to how we might want to position ourselves.
You can also take that learning and knowledge and turn it into teaching or mentoring opportunities, and not feel rushed in doing so. In fact, I’ve had a number of people reach out to me in the last few months and ask I could speak with them, and I’ve been able to do that fairly quickly. It wasn’t, ‘sure, I’m available next June.’ I always hated having to do that. Now I’m able to sit down and really speak with people about their options, and I’m very happy with that.
And of course, I get to spend more time with my family, which is wonderful.
Gamble: Definitely. What are some issues that are most critical to you?
Johnson: First, I would say the patient identifier. We have go to get past that hurdle. It really frightens me when I read the stories where care is administered incorrectly or to the wrong patient, or wrong limb. Even though we’ve tried to put safety nets in — and they’ve certainly improved the situation — the fact that we’re a mobile society means that our healthcare data needs to flow across the ecosystem, so that wherever we are, we can be properly identified.
Cybersecurity is always a concern, but we have some great experts who are focused on that. I worry more about patients and their ability to consume data. We need to be able to present data to them in a way that they can use it and understand it. It may be the words we use, it may be the language — there are so many things that can be barriers. Care navigators are helping, but not everyone has access to one.
And finally, the ponderance we’re dealing with around opiates. As we begin to see a decline in opioid-related deaths, we need to keep up the good work, but we also need to be aware that drugs like methadone, heroin, and even alcohol are killing a lot of people. As a patient advocate, which I’ve been throughout my career, I believe we need to continue to engage them and get their input into what they need.
Because what happens is we can be paternalistic. We need to be aware that it’s a potential characteristic in healthcare providers. Instead, we should be facilitators, coordinators, and listeners. I can tell you from my days at the bedside that listening to my patients was the best way to learn what was happening; better than any tool. They know when something feels different, or feels off. Listening is so valuable; we need to be able to use that skill.
With all the advances that have been made, we have the ability to give them information they can use to manage their lives — if we can just get it right.
Gamble: It’s been so refreshing to hear so much talk lately—and especially at this event—about the human side of healthcare.
Johnson: Absolutely. As we have developed and implemented technology, we’ve recognized that we have to have the data centers and all the pieces in place. And we’re completely fascinated by bright and shiny objects, but it’s all about people. Throughout my career, the network I’ve been able to establish and have been privileged to be part of, is what has kept me informed. That’s what keeps us coming back. This organization is full of caring, knowledgeable, and dedicated people, and it’s a pleasure to be part of it. And we support each other.