Of all the ways in which healthcare was affected by Covid-19, one of the most significant was the inability to collaborate at in-person events. CHIME was no exception; as the pandemic forced both its Boot Camps and Fall Forum to convert to virtual events.
It forced the organization — which has always been a proponent of face-to-face interactions — to pause, but not to stop. “We’re constantly trying to figure out what are the toughest problems in healthcare, and what can we do as a collaborative group to make it less burdensome for all of us,” said Russ Branzell in a recent interview.
It’s pretty clear what the toughest problem was in 2020. CHIME, like many organizations, was forced to pivot, and rapidly accelerate a strategy that had already been outlined to become a digital organization. And while changing the conference format was a key step, it certainly wasn’t the only one; education, task force meetings, and one-on-one conversations took on a new nature, and even opened up new opportunities for collaboration.
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- For CHIME, the vision of moving to a digital organization means figuring out how to “reach a broader audience in an industry that’s changing dramatically.”
- Because the groundwork had been established, CHIME was able to “expand a bit” and re-ground itself during a time when many organizations were forced to retract.
- Holding summits and events virtually isn’t meant to replace in-person interactions, but rather, “present a new opportunity” to serve a wider audience.
- “We want to come together as a family. And just because you can’t physically get together with family, it doesn’t mean you don’t stay in touch with them. It became clear that we really needed to do that.”
Q&A with Russ Branzell, Part 1
Gamble: I want to start by talking about Covid’s impact; how CHIME was able to pivot and make difficult decisions about what was going to happen?
Branzell: Like so many organizations, we dealt with having people work from home. But I want to back up to the summer of 2019, during which our board gave us some strong strategic direction that digital is the future for healthcare, and set a vision to move CHIME to a digital organization.
It doesn’t mean we don’t continue to capture everything in an in-person environment and continue to do what CHIME does (and does well), but for us to get our message out, and to support the healthcare ecosystem, we were going to have to figure out how to scale — not from a revenue or cost perspective, but rather, how can we reach a broader audience in an industry that’s changing dramatically.
They gave us some pretty clear direction; we had a whole roadmap. What happened — which was no different for everybody else — was that we thought was a two to three year plan really happened in about two to three months. As an example, we had a one-year plan to implement our digital education and learning management system, and we did it in 10 days.
Tim Stettheimer, our VP of Education, just said, ‘We can do this; it’s just going to be crazy for the next two weeks,’ and they did it. They put an entire digital education system in place. We now offer hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of digital education programs to both members and non-member who, in many cases, never would have sought that education in person due to cost constraints or travel constraints, and so the audience has expanded significantly. Our team launched over 40 new internal and external programs and activities by Christmastime.
Our digital education system — our entire digital health community — is intended for the whole ecosystem. It isn’t just for CHIME members. Yes, we’re always going to take care of our members. We’re always going to make sure that nucleus is supported. But even at a time when many associations were hitting hard times and letting people go, we never had to do any of that. As a matter of fact, we even added a position during that time. I’m really proud of our boards.
Giving back during lean times
For instance, our Education Foundation Board decided it was time to lean in and help people, and gave more than $200,000 in scholarships to women and minorities. During a time when everybody else really was forced to retract, we were able to expand a little bit. That’s a credit to our boards doing the right things the right way for a long time. We have an amazing group of members that just really care about our industry.
There are lots of examples of programs we’ve launched during this time, but more importantly, we knew there was one thing we had to do, and that was to stay connected.
There were a lot of phone calls and Zoom calls that probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been in this situation. We were able to re-ground, which was great. I never want to go through COVID again, but there is a gold lining, and it’s that we were able to re-ground with people in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
Gamble: Really interesting. I mean it’s similar to what we’ve heard in speaking to CIOs that a lot of organizations had plans to go digital, but not this quickly. I’m sure that having a network has been absolutely huge as people go through big changes in a short amount of time.
Branzell: Without a doubt. I try to simplify things sometimes into easy thirds. There were those that were already heading down this path really aggressively, and so it wasn’t a big lift for them. CHIME is probably somewhere between there in the middle group, which is organizations that had plans and were starting to move in that direction. And finally, there are those that didn’t have any plans, and so it was a huge lift. The key is that everybody did it; everybody figured it out, and that’s a testament to the industry.
Gamble: As far as transitioning the Fall Forum and Boot Camps to a virtual format, what was that process like?
Branzell: It is, and in many cases, we had to learn some of these things. Now what was great was we have numerous faculty who teach at the college level and do it remotely. Tim teaches at Boston College and University of North Texas. I teach at Columbia. We have full-time CIOs who teach all over the country and do it remotely. So there was a lot of learning ahead of time.
The other thing is that many organizations went ahead with their events. Our forum was in the fall. We fully admit that if we would have done ours right after the COVID lockdown, we probably would have made some of the same mistakes and had some of the same issues. We were able to learn from a lot of other people. I work with a group of association CEOs that meet every week and compare notes on what’s happening and what we’ve learned. They were all willing to share what they experienced over the summer. Our team did a lot of benchmarking.
Of course, it doesn’t replace in-person interactions; what it does is present a new opportunity for us. We’ve seen in our education programs, whether it’s our Boot Camp series or other offerings, that there’s always going to be a group of individuals that won’t be able to attend, either due to cost constraints and/or travel restrictions. This gives them a great opportunity. And again, it was always on our roadmap, it just happened faster than we anticipated.
I will say in many cases, the experience was tremendous. We had students from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and different places in the European Union who were waking up and 2 and 3 in the morning to attend class. It has presented a new frontier for us; and now it’s not either/or, but it really does present an opportunity for both — and in a really meaningful way.
Gamble: When I looked at the lineup for the Spring Forum, it looks like CHIME was really able to bring in some heavy hitters. Maybe that was helped by the fact that it is virtual, but either way, it seems like it’s going to be a great opportunity to get those perspectives.
Branzell: I think so. We added this program because we saw a void for two reasons. One is that in our industry, there would be a huge gap of people coming together and sharing with each other. The other part is that we don’t consider ourselves to be a normal group, and I say that in all seriousness. We consider ourselves as more of a fraternal order in the fact that we want to come together as a family. And just because you can’t physically get together with family, it doesn’t mean you don’t stay in touch with them. It became clear that we really needed to do that.
I give a lot of credit to Darren Dworkin, our education chair and to the whole committee, which said, ‘let’s do this in a different way. Let’s spend some time really sharing as an industry; let’s share the good, the bad, the future, the present — whatever the case may be. And yes, maybe it’s a little easier to do it digital, but I believe those same people would have showed up on a physical stage if we would have been meeting together in person. It makes it a little easier to do it digitally, at least from a travel perspective, but more difficult technically.
But you look at that lineup, it’s a great representative of people who are leading through the most dramatic time in healthcare in our history, and we get to share in that leadership and share best practices with each other.
I’m just really proud of everybody and what they’re doing. And it’s not just about the keynotes; although they are important, and we do like to hear from great thought leaders and authors. But we’ve got great people inside of our ecosystem — why not capitalize on that during this time?
Gamble: Absolutely. Although I will say that with companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft getting into the health IT space, it will be valuable to get those perspectives.
Branzell: Yes. We’ve got major EMR CEOs presenting in different capacities. We’ve got big tech presenting. The emergence of all these new players into healthcare — not in a bad way, but in a productive way—really does map back to this consumerism model that we’re moving to, and how we’re going to have to change with healthcare as it changes.
Gamble: And you’re also doing education or executive forums in the summer.
Branzell: We are. We always assumed we would do two programs per year. We originally said we’d do in the summer; we incorrectly assumed that the whole world would be opened up by then. Now, there is positive news that the vaccines are being distributed, and in a big way, and we’re feeling really good about it.
But this is really an intent to bring, again, thought leadership by broadcasting from three hub cities: Washington DC, Atlanta and Salt Lake City, while also offering the opportunity for some small groups of people who are vaccinated.
We have heard through many phone calls, tweets and conversations from people that they’re not necessarily ready to get back together in groups of hundreds, never mind thousands, but they’re willing to get together in some small groups, and I think we all need that. It’s no different than families that need to figure out how to start getting back together as things roll out from a vaccine and immunity perspective. The same is true of our CHIME family. We want to start getting back together in some small groups, in some select cities that are out there. We’re going to try to put this together in a meaningful way that people can spend some time together, while still complying with all the rules.
But at the same time, it’s making sure we’re really focused on innovation, policy, and other key areas. We also need a little bit of time face-to-face. We think that in June, some small groups of people can start getting together. We think it will be a great opportunity for us, and for the entire industry.
Part 2 Coming Soon…