For the past few years, we’ve seen a significant evolution in the role of the CIO. And although it isn’t always obvious, there are times when it couldn’t be clearer just how much has changed. Case in point: Aaron Miri, who has held the role at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin for the past two years.
During a recent interview about his team’s efforts in response to Covid, he expressed the same passion while discussing the human aspect of leadership as he did while talking about the groundbreaking 3D-printing face shield imitative. When it comes to managing people, Miri believes the need to “tough it out and soldier on” can hinder relationships, and that during difficult times, it’s important to “be vulnerable” and “talk to your team in a way they understand.”
He also talks about how the innovative culture at UT Health Austin has enabled his team to flourish, their strategy when it comes to contact tracing, the enormous potential telemedicine offers in terms of health equity, and why he feels like two years has “flown by.”
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- It’s not just about convenience; telemedicine can help improve health equity by removing “a lot the stigma and barriers” that prevent individuals from seeking care.
- Although the instinct for many leaders is to maintain a “tough” exterior, what’s important during challenging times is to demonstrate vulnerability and be able to “talk to you team in a way they understand.”
- For people who are disconnected from others, the effects of Covid-19 are magnified, which makes it even more important to reach out and check in on your team.
- Leaders can’t underestimate the value of recognizing hard work, particularly during a crisis.
- Local and state officials can offer much-needed assistance – but only if they’ve made aware of the challenges healthcare organizations are facing.
Gamble: It’s going to be really intriguing to see what unfolds because there are a lot of situations where you to have to be physician present for an appointment, but so many where you don’t. It seems there’s enormous potential to improve the patient experience.
Miri: You’re absolutely right. And there’s potential to make sure we reach people who maybe we wouldn’t have been able to reach before. Prior to Covid, there were a lot of reports and responses from people in the Austin area who simply would not present unless they absolutely had to for fear of law enforcement. Telemedicine has mitigated a lot of those concerns because even though you’re not physically in front of somebody, you’re still able to receive care at the right place and the right time.
If you look at the whole mantra and the effect of the quadruple aim and making sure the technology stocks align to that, it goes back to health equity — telemedicine removes a lot of the stigma and barriers that unfortunately society placed in the middle of being able to receive care. Physicians and clinicians don’t want to see a patient advance to a level of care like the ICU. They want them to get better, either in surgery or recovery, or even when you present to the ED and then go home and have a successful recovery. Most folks don’t ever want to be in the ICU or want to see anybody in the ICU. In order to get in front of that, you have to intervene with prophylactics and whatnot ahead of time; that takes being able to be seen, not just showing up. And so telemedicine really has been a boon for just everybody.
Gamble: I’ve been able to use telemedicine for doctor visits with my kids, and it’s been absolutely amazing.
Miri: I understand that having with two little ones myself. Another topic we don’t hear a lot about is taking care of one’s self. It’s tough because as leaders, we want to show strength; we want to show that there’s no weakness and that we’re not ‘human.’ We want to show that we can tough it out and soldier on, and that’s not healthy at all. It’s healthy to be human and be vulnerable, and talk to your staff and talk to your team in a way that they resemble and understand.
I had team members of mine who lost family members because of COVID or had other comorbidities and issues. There’s been angst across the team; and so as leaders, we need to be vulnerable and talk to people by saying, ‘listen, I feel the same way. I feel the same types of stresses, concerns, and worries.’ I’ve said publicly that at the end of March, when the first potential casualty tolls were showing what the summer could’ve looked like for the city of Austin, had we not intervened and done some of the proactive measures possible, I recall going home one evening and literally tearing up. It was an involuntary response; I was standing in the kitchen before dinner. There was just so much anxiety and concern weighing on me because of the potential casualty rates and knowing my team was right in the middle of it. It weighs you down; it’s hard stuff. But you have to take care of your team as well as taking care of yourself.
Some of the things I did personally to help mitigate that was to have a healthy response and challenge myself in a healthy way. I’m a big runner anyway, but I increased my frequency of running to alleviate the stress. Number two, I picked up a fun habit. Austin is a big T-shirt city and so I started collecting goofy T-shirts as a fun way to distract myself, and so I have a good collection of really interesting 80s T-shirts I wear on the weekends. I had to have something else to focus on; something healthy that’s just totally different.
Number three, I also changed my diet. I actually adopted the Keto diet — I’m on week 12 now of no carbs, which is also interesting, but it helps me sleep. It helps me process. Those are things I did to create a healthy response to a tremendous amount of anxiety and challenges. Each of you as leaders who are listening to this and reading this — you need to take it upon yourself to take care of yourself. Your team is looking up to you and counting on you. They’re counting on you to be vulnerable. They’re counting on you to teach them healthy ways and healthy mitigation strategies to remedy the stress. It’s very important. Once you take care of yourself, your team will follow by the wayside.
Gamble: I’m glad you brought that up. It’s so important to check in with people. For a lot of leaders that might not be their nature, but it’s just so important. It’s great to hear people really talking about mental health. You need to have these conversations.
Miri: You’re exactly right. At CHIME last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, did a fantastic discussion on the issue of loneliness, and how many people go home and are truly lonely and disconnected from the rest of the world. I researched it after that fantastic presentation by him, and it’s true — there is a tremendous amount of the population that’s just disconnected from everybody else. They go home to an empty refrigerator and who live in a food desert. They have no caregivers, no caretakers — they’re by themselves. It’s a sad and tremendously profound effect on people, and Covid has magnified that issue tremendously. And so the more you can reach out to people, the better off they are. Even some of the most smiling, happiest people in the world can be truly lonely on the inside. We as leaders must take the time to focus on our staff, especially in times like this. It’s very important.
Gamble: Agreed. The last thing I wanted to address is that I noticed you were nominated back in the summer for CHIME’s Healthcare Heroes. I’m sure it’s an honor to get that recognition for your team. What did that mean to you?
Miri: I appreciate that. I’m probably one of the worst people in the world at accepting praise and honors. But you’re right; it’s about the team, and it’s about the caregivers. I can’t stress this enough. For all of us who have been in the middle of this since day one — since this thing broke out in the early spring — it has been a whirlwind situation. And so, to pause and recognize something like that is an honor for the team. It’s their work. It’s their efforts. It’s the clinicians every single day at the bedside. It’s the medical students who jumped into the frontlines before they even graduated. It’s our nurses who, without one bit of complaint, are working double and triple shifts to make sure they stay on top of the patient volumes. It’s our administrators who are rounding are every single day to figure out how to get in front of the latest challenge, whether it’s reagent testing, PPE shortages or whatever it may be. It’s everyone. It’s a tremendous team effort. And so, when an organization like CHIME says you’re a healthcare hero, it’s recognizing Dell Medical School and UT Health Austin and the leadership here and what they’ve enabled us to do. Because it’s one thing to be bold; it’s another to have a culture of being bold, and that takes everybody.
Gamble: Well said. It’s funny; I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but my son’s name is Austin. When you talked about funny T-shirts, I’m a big fan of the ‘Keep Austin weird’ slogan.
Miri: It’s great because being in Boston for the past several years, Boston is almost formal. It’s sort of West Coast meets New England, and so unless you’re in the south side of the city, you’re not doing that. You’re always in polos or buttons up; plus, it’s freezing all the time. Here, everyone is relaxed. I wanted a different hobby, and I’ve always been envious of people in the city with their cool, eclectic T-shirts, and so I said, why not? Let’s do it. Let’s have some fun with this. So it became my goofy habit.
Gamble: I love it. That’s great.
Miri: One of my favorite T-shirts is one that has an old-school Nintendo ES with the control and red buttons, and it says, ‘Let’s settle this like adults.’ It’s goofy. It makes you laugh and puts you in a good mood. It’s a healthy way to get your mind off of what you see every day.
Gamble: Definitely. Is there anything we didn’t cover?
Miri: Absolutely. One thing I want to say is to please, please reach out to your local, federal, and state officials — governors, senators and representatives — and educate them on what’s happening in your area. They all want to help, regardless of what you may read on the papers or see in the news. Every single one of them wants to help, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on when you don’t have boots on the ground. It’s amazing because the Texas State Capitol is literally right around the corner of my office. I’ve been there so many so many times to educate the governor and others on what’s happening — just telemetry of boots on the ground. Because they do want help but it takes all of our collective voices to educate them and say, ‘We have a shortage of this. We need your help with this. There’s a state issue here.’
In our case, it was a lot of state procurement rules that have been on the books for forever that were inhibiting us. They were able to relax some of those to accelerate our ability to get materials. It was educating them on what they needed to do to help us. Those things work. And so I encourage everyone to reach out and partner with local and state officials and regulatory bodies and educate them; they want to help.
Gamble: That’s a great message. I want to thank you so much for your time, and I hope to speak again soon.
Miri: Absolutely. Be safe.