Communication is an essential part of leadership — particularly during a crisis. There’s no disputing that. But in order to have a real impact, it must go beyond merely speaking with your direct reports. It’s about empowering directors and managers to communicate with their teams. Because the reality is that, as a CIO, “there’s a limited audience” you can reach, said Michael Saad in a recent interview.
Saad, who serves as CIO at University of Tennessee Medical Center, believes that, when given the right opportunity, individuals will “step up and shine.” He’s seen it happen, especially during the past few months. In the interview, Saad talked about his team’s strategy in response to Covid-19, why data is “the new oil,” how vendor relationships have changed, and the “new normal” healthcare leaders can expect going forward.
- The “critical distinction” between vendor and partner
- Moving forward – “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
- Using data to monitor trends
- Disaster preparedness – “You have to have your foot in 2 different canoes.”
- “You can’t over-communicate during times like this.”
- Lessons learned from the East Coast power outage
- The “new normal” for patient care
- AI’s critical role
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A vendor wants to sell you something and get their name by working with your organization. A partner works with you strategically to understand your goals and initiatives.
We’re making sure we have everything in order so that if there is a resurgence, we’re ready to handle it and won’t be caught by surprise.
If the pandemic gets worse, we’re ready to be quick and agile and shift to support that. But at the same time, we have a hospital to run; we have to focus on revenues and make sure we’re back to the sustainable volumes we can manage.
Top-down communication is important to share the vision. But it’s even more important that the next level down — the middle management layer — communicates clearly with their teams as to what the vision is, what we’re focused on, and what do we need to do today and next week.
I think access to healthcare will improve, and we’re going to see an acceleration we haven’t seen before in the use of technology in healthcare. That’s exciting.
Gamble: When you talk about being able to run analytics, there needs to be a solid infrastructure in place. Were you able to do that, even if some of the systems don’t speak with each other?
Saad: Absolutely. We have some very talented people who were able to extract data from different systems and put them together in a dashboard that provided a single view for everybody.
Gamble: Is that going to remain a priority going forward?
Saad: Yes. We’re looking at different tools and dashboards. We’re also reaching out to our vendors and asking them to start interacting and interfacing better with the other tools and systems we use.
Gamble: It’s interesting you brought that up. We’ve heard from a few different people that their vendor management strategies have changed during the pandemic, whether that means communicating more frequently or in different ways.
Saad: It has changed, and I will complement our vendors — I think they’ve done a great job during this pandemic. When they’ve reached out, it hasn’t been in the area of sales. They’ll contact us and say, ‘We have a solution that we think will help.’ Or if we already use the solution, they’ll say, ‘here’s a module that we think will benefit you,’ and offer it at no cost. They’re trying to help people out and work through this pandemic together as a team.
We’ve seen a shift from vendor to partner — that’s a critical distinction. A vendor wants to sell you something and get their name by working with your organization. A partner works with you strategically to understand your goals and initiatives. That’s what a lot companies have done; they’ve tried to partner with us and say, ‘We understand this is a global pandemic. We want to be here. We want to help and be part of the solution. I’ve seen that transition happen over the last couple of months, and it’s been great to watch.
Gamble: Looking ahead, what are some of your other key objectives from an IT standpoint? I would imagine that not being hit as hard by Covid-19 enables you to move on more quickly than some organizations can.
Saad: We’re cautiously optimistic about the COVID pandemic. We as an organization, along with many others across the country, are planning on a resurgence in the fall. And we hope we’re wrong; we hope it doesn’t happen in conjunction with the flu season in the fall. But if it does, we’re already making plans as an organization to not be caught flat-footed. We’re making sure we have proper PPE and negative pressure rooms. We’re making sure we have everything in order so that if there is a resurgence, we’re ready to handle it and won’t be caught by surprise.
We’ve been through the worst of it, now it’s time to shift our focus to somewhat normalizing operations; getting back to non-essential surgeries (which were reinstated in Tennessee in May) and getting our volumes back up. But we’re also keeping a close eye on the data we talked about — the statistics and the trends. If we start to see an uptick, rather than being caught behind, we can react to the data in almost real time.
Gamble: It seems like disaster preparedness will start to look really different from what it’s been in the past.
Saad: Absolutely. You almost have to have your foot in two different canoes. If the pandemic gets worse, we’re ready to be quick and agile and shift to support that. But at the same time, we have a hospital to run; we have to focus on revenues and make sure we’re back to the sustainable volumes we can manage from a hospital perspective and a health system perspective. It’s a delicate balance of focusing on the operational aspects of the here and now, while knowing that can change at any minute, and being agile and being able to support it when and if it does happen.
Gamble: That segues into another area I’d like to talk about, which is leadership through difficult situations. There’s no playbook, of course, but what do you think are some of the key things leaders can do to guide their teams during tough times?
Saad: There are two things I have found to be helpful during this crisis. One is communication. I know we already touched on it as it relates to working from home, but it is absolutely critical; it’s make-or-break for the team. You cannot over-communicate during times like this. It is essential to communicate what is happening because information is changing so rapidly right now. What is the strategy? What do we need to focus on today as a team? What is our strategy over the next week? What is our strategy over the next month?
Organizations need to be able to react quickly to the situation on the ground. And so communication is absolutely key; but it doesn’t always have to come from the top-down. As CIO, I need to enable other leaders to communicate, because there’s a limited audience I can reach. I have calls and emails with the entire department, but I’m not there managing each employee directly. They have managers and directors who do that, and those folks need to be empowered and challenged to make sure they’re communicating with their teams.
Of course, top-down communication is important to share the vision and to share the strategy and some of the operational work. But it’s even more important that the next level down — the middle management layer — communicates clearly with their teams as to what the vision is, what we’re focused on, and what do we need to do today and next week.
Another positive that’s come out of the pandemic is that I’ve seen leaders step up and shine because they’ve been given opportunity to do so. There is so much happening right now and so much work to be done — and one person can’t do it all. That’s typical of any team. The team is not made up of one person, it’s made up of everyone together working together as a unit. In times of crisis, it’s even more important to have other leaders step up. It’s been great to watch others mature and grow through this, and to give people opportunities to work with teams and to see their excitement and passion and their care for our patients, as well as our staff.
Gamble: Prior to this, had you been through any type of crisis, whether it was a natural disaster or something along those lines?
Saad: I don’t think anything can compare to Covid. But we did have a power outage about 15 years ago that affected most of the East Coast for a few days. But that was different. It was regional; it only impacted a specific portion of the country. This is a global pandemic, and it has instilled a lot more fear in people, and a lot of different reactions. We had staff that were concerned about their safety, and for good reason. And so we had to be very cognizant of that and make sure we were establishing a safe work environment for our network team, our desktop team, and our telecom team that were still working with people and setting things up.
It’s very different and unique, and there’s no end in sight. We’re all hopeful for a vaccine that will truly put this pandemic to rest, but at this point we don’t know how long it will last or what it will look like when it does fizzle out or if, in fact, there is a resurgence. This really is something different for all of us. And while there may be past experience we can draw on, this is unchartered territory, and we have to work through it together.
Gamble: I agree. There are other tough situations, but nothing can compare to this. It’s a different animal.
Saad: It is, very much so. But I’m sure we’re going to draw from lessons we learned during this pandemic and apply those in the future. That’s a good thing as well.
Gamble: True. So much is going to come out of this, including the widespread adoption of telemedicine, which is a positive. But Covid has put such a strain on healthcare organizations financially. Do you see the industry being able to move toward recovery?
Saad: I do. But I don’t think we’re going to return to what we remember as ‘normal.’ I think there’s going to be a new normal, and I think it’s going to be a hybrid of in-person care and things like wearables — we’re really seeing an explosion there. That’s going to be important as we shift to a telemedicine-type environment.
Analytics is going to continue to be at the forefront of everything we do. And while AI and other technologies have moved forward at a decent pace, I think this will accelerate that pace. I think we’re going to see a lot more capital infusion into those areas, because people see potential that they didn’t necessarily see before. And so, I think this is going to accelerate the use of technology. I think it’s an exciting time to be working in the technology field in healthcare. Technology is literally transforming healthcare as we know it today, and we have a lot of opportunities to be part of that. Covid is a terrible pandemic; it’s something none of us wanted to go through, but as with everything else in life, there’s a silver lining. And the silver lining is that it’s going to change the way healthcare is delivered. I also think access to care is going to improve, which has been an issue in both urban and rural areas. I think access to healthcare will improve, and we’re going to see an acceleration we haven’t seen before in the use of technology in healthcare. That’s exciting.