In healthcare, it seems like the only constant is change. Whether it’s patient experience or employee expectations, the pendulum is always going to be swinging. For leaders, it means being willing – and able – to pivot, said Sonney Sapra, SVP and CIO at Samaritan Health Services and Samaritan Health Plan, during a recent interview.
One of the biggest adjustments has been the transition to remote and hybrid work models. With IT talent at an all-time premium, it’s imperative for leaders to find ways to stay connected with their teams, and make sure they feel fulfilled. “They can get a paycheck anywhere; we have to be able to look at what they need in their day-to-day life,” he said.
During the discussion, Sapra talked about his team’s core objectives – which include becoming a data-driven organization and moving to 100 percent virtual; the “leap of faith” that brought him across the country; the culture of “systemness” that permeates throughout the organization; and why he became involved in ACHE’s Executive Diversity Program.
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- “Our top priority right now is becoming a data-driven organization,” and moving toward a future where data are leveraged to improve population health.
- In addition to being “Epic-first,” one of the guiding philosophies at Samaritan is to focus on “what the system needs as opposed to what the hospital may need.”
- “Every organization goes through growing pains when you adopt a different set of thinking and a different culture,” and although Samaritan started on the journey more than 4 years ago, “we still have a ways to go,” said Sapra.
- As remote workforces become permanent, leaders need to change the way they engage with teams. At Samaritan, “We have monthly town halls. We have virtual water cooler talks. We try to stay as connected as we can.”
- The other impact of the hybrid work trend? Leaders can now extend their searches when recruiting IT talent. “We need to start thinking about not restricting ourselves.”
Q&A with Sonney Sapra, CIO, Samaritan Health Services, Part 1
Gamble: Hi Sonney, I look forward to talking about what your team’s working on and get into some of your background as well. Let’s start with a high-level overview. Samaritan is a five-hospital system based in Oregon, and you have a health plan, correct?
Sapra: Yes, we have a health plan as well, which is called the Integrated Health Network. We have five hospitals, two of which are critical access, and we have about 120 clinics.
Gamble: And you’re located in the Pacific Northwest?
Sapra: Yes. We’re about an hour and a half from Portland. Our corporate office is based in Corvallis, where Oregon State University is located.
Gamble: Okay. And so, what do you consider to be your top priorities at this point?
Sapra: Our top priority right now is becoming a data driven organization and going down that path of managing our data, both from a system perspective and a health plan perspective, and that plays into true population health. And so, we’re spending quite a bit of time looking at how we move forward with that and putting some plans in place. We’re launching a project next year to bring all of that together — a lot of time and effort are being put into that.
We’re primarily an Epic shop for inpatient and outpatient, with the same instance throughout. We probably have about 600-700 active applications in the system, and so, we’re looking at how to bring the number of applications down in somewhat of a consolidated fashion. We’ve set up principles within our system to be Epic first and to look at software as a service, and really look at what the system needs as opposed to what the hospital may need and really going down in that systemness approach.
Lastly, a major goal of ours is to be 100 percent virtual by 2025. We’re working to get out of our data center by 2025, and either have those solutions within our Azure virtual environment or move toward more of a Software-as-a-Service model.
Gamble: Definitely a lot going on. Can you talk more about moving to the cloud and where you stand with that now?
Sapra: We are well into our journey of moving into our private cloud environment. We’re moving as much data as we can and as many applications as we can within the Azure environment.
The next goal is looking at Epic and deciding whether we take data from our data center and move it into our Azure environment, or we get hosted by Epic. We’re still working out the numbers and the details around that; once we’ve made a decision, we’ll start moving forward.
Gamble: It sounds like there’s a lot of emphasis on systemness. Has that been the philosophy for a while?
Sapra: It has. We got a new CEO [Doug Boysen] about four years ago; he brought that vision. I’ve been here for just over a year. I was previously at University of Louisville Health. When I came to this organization, part of what attracted me was how leadership approaches everything from a system standpoint.
Of course, every organization goes through growing pains when you adopt a different set of thinking and a different culture. I think we’re moving closer every day to that system thinking, but we still have a ways to go. Cultural shifts take time, and we’ll keep moving in that direction every day.
Gamble: Can you talk more about that cultural shift and what it takes from a leadership perspective?
Sapra: It starts at the very top. One of the main things our CEO did when he came here was to make our mission statement: “Servicing our communities to be healthier.” It turned our mission into a very simple statement. We want our values to be easy to remember, and so we created a statement within the organization that focuses on making sure we’re performing well and that we’re acting with respect, integrity, dedication, and excellence.
“We’re going to think as a system”
It brought forth a simplicity that everybody should be able to remember our mission statement. Everybody should know what our prime values are. And that set a tone that this is the way we’re going to think as an organization now. We’re going to think as a system. Part of that cultural shift was talking to independent CEOs who were brought into Samaritan through acquisitions, and getting them to understand that we’re going to act together as a system, and not as independent hospitals. We’re going to help each other.
All the decisions we make on how we transfer patients and where they go — it’s all part of that. You can see that culture in action. And I truly believe that when you feel the culture is changing, that’s when it’s really changing. Putting words out there is something, but feeling it in an organization cements that the progress is happening. And you really can feel it in the organization when we are acting more and more as a system. When we feel like we’re more part of Samaritan Health than Albany General Hospital or Good Samaritan Regional Hospital in Corvallis. We aren’t acting as independent hospitals; we’re acting as a system.
Gamble: That’s really important. And you mentioned you’ve been there around a year — that’s an interesting time to start with an organization. Even though we were a year into Covid, everything was still affected by it.
Sapra: Leaving Louisville was a very tough decision. I really enjoyed my time there, but my family wanted to come back to the Northwest. The decision to come back was more personal than anything else. Luckily, we had lived in Oregon prior to moving to Louisville, so we knew what we were coming back to. There was a certain amount of familiarity.
I think the biggest change I have seen, depending on which health system you’re with and the culture that exists, is with employee bases that are primarily remote or hybrid. I came into an environment where the majority of our staff had been sent home to work because of Covid. There was a strong request to be able to work from home permanently, which we granted in hopes of increasing employee satisfaction. We now have about 85 percent of the IS staff working remotely.
“Shift with the culture”
And when you’re trying to embed yourself into the culture of the organization as a leader, that’s a big challenge. At Louisville, I was used to picking up a cup of coffee and walking the floors every day within the IS department. That let me connect with our employees in a different way; I was able to get to know them from a work perspective and from a personal perspective.
That was a little bit of a shift. And so, we had to change our thinking as to how we do things. We have monthly town halls. We have virtual water cooler talks. We try to stay as connected as we can. We have teams that get together in person about once a month so that they can stay connected. As leaders, we try to attend some of those events as well.
We’re doing as much as we can to shift with the culture. In some ways we’ve already shifted quite a bit. We’ve not only sent people to work from home permanently, but we’ve also now added 20 states from where we hire. And so, if we’re going to have a remote workforce, we need to start thinking about not restricting ourselves to Oregon, but instead, looking across the nation for talent. In some ways it has helped us because we’re able to hire staff from out of state and keep them, and identify true talent.
It’s a different way of thinking and approaching it. It’s been a learning experience, honestly, for me to adjust to that culture. In healthcare, we’ve been behind the curve in thinking that way. It’s something I’ve learned to grow with since I’ve been with the organization, and I’ve become adjusted to that way of thinking.
Part 2 Coming Soon…