When Ellen Pollack was promoted to CIO after logging more than two decades with the organization, some might say she was at a distinct advantage. However, despite having amassed thorough knowledge of the innerworkings of its IT systems, Pollack approached the role as if she were new to the organization, embarking on a listening tour with those inside and outside of IT to learn what they perceived as strengths and areas of opportunity.
“I tried not to assume that I know everything just because I’ve been there a long time,” she said during an interview with Kate Gamble, Managing Editor and Director of Social Media at healthsystemCIO. “I wanted to hear other perspectives.”
And so, she scheduled one-on-one meetings with directors and attended team meetings so she could speak directly with users about their priorities and concerns.
Gathering information, however, was merely step one. One of her team’s key objectives is to apply the feedback from the listening tour and create workgroups “to iron out some of the challenging points and figure out how we can be more efficient and effective,” she said. “There are always processes that need to be optimized. We want to continually improve ourselves while helping the organization achieve their goals.”
During the interview, Pollack talked about how they’re working toward the goal of constant optimization while supporting the strategic plan for UCLA Health, a Southern California-based health system with 4 hospitals and more than 260 clinics. She also discussed the career path that took her from nurse to informatics leader to CIO; why more organizations are hiring Chief Digital Officers; and the “special skillset” it takes to become an informatics leader.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Q&A with Ellen Pollack, CIO, UCLA Health
Gamble: Hi Ellen, thank you for taking some time to speak with us. Can you talk a bit about your role at UCLA?
Pollack: Sure. I’ve been with the organization for 28 years. I’ve been CIO for about a year. Our team supports the clinical, academic, and community mission. That means we are one IT department that supports the hospital, the clinics, the school of medicine, and research and education.
On moving into informatics
Gamble: So, you’ve been with the organization for quite a while, but started in nursing, correct?
Pollack: Yes. I actually started as a nurse manager at the Santa Monica Hospital; shortly after that, I realized it wasn’t really what I enjoyed doing. Fortunately, I was offered to stay on to manage projects for the department of nursing. I reported to the nurse executive and managed largescale projects for her — very quickly those became informatics projects. I found the niche of nursing informatics before nursing informatics really took off.
We formed a small informatics team and implemented a whole lot of clinical systems. This was back in the days of the best-of-breed environment. We implemented nursing documentation, a nursing medication administration system, a bed management system, an ED system, etc.
On UCLA’s Epic change
Then, after about 10 years UCLA decided to go down the path of implementing Epic’s EHR. I was fortunate to be offered a director position on that project and spent the next couple of years working on that implementation. It was very eventful; the day we turned on Epic was also the day we turned off all those we had spent the last 10 years working on. It was bittersweet.
I spent the next 8 years as the CNIO, working on optimizing and improving our clinical systems for our very busy clinicians and our patients. About a year and a half ago, our CIO moved on to another opportunity. I was named interim CIO and eventually appointed CIO.
On stepping in as CIO
Gamble: I would imagine the fact that you had been with the organization and been part of major projects was beneficial in making the transition to CIO.
Pollack: Being a long-term UCLA employee certainly made it easier in some respects. I pride myself on having good relationships with people from throughout our organization. Because I had been there so many years and worked on so many different initiatives, I got to know a wide variety of people. That definitely made it easier because I know the players. I know the landscape of the technology. I know what our strengths and opportunities are.
One thing I was up against was the fact that having a nurse CIO is not a slam dunk. I think in an academic medical center, oftentimes people look to physician leadership to take on those roles. And so, I was pleasantly surprised that I was considered a candidate and then of course, I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to lead this amazing IT organization we have.
On the 2 types of CIOs
Gamble: And of course, having clinical experience also worked to your advantage, right?
Pollack: Yes. I believe there are at least two flavors of CIOs. There’s the technology-based CIO who has a background in technology and really understands the infrastructure and the deep technical pieces. And then there’s the clinical CIO, which is what we’re seeing more of now; someone who can help connect with clinicians and understands what it takes to implement the systems that support our business and make patient care safer, more efficient, and more effective. Either way can work; either flavor of CIO can be successful.
On the rise of chief digital officers
Now, I think the tide has changed where we understand that there are advantages to having clinical expertise. That’s why you see more and more people hiring a chief digital officer; because if you’re a more traditional technology-based CIO, you may really need that chief digital officer to help lead that part of the organization. I think I’ve been successful because we have a tremendously talented technology team — they understand where my strengths are and also where my limitations are, and we work to make sure that we cover all of the ground.
At UCLA, we have that space covered. We have a CMIO and CNIO; those two combined make up our clinical informatics program. We have a large number of physician and nurse informaticists who also cover that space. Because of that, we haven’t found a gap that needs to be filled with a chief digital officer.
On her core objectives as CIO (staff development, cybersecurity & optimization)
Gamble: At this point, what do you consider to be your core objectives?
Pollack: I’m sure the first one won’t be a surprise, but we’re focused on taking care of our team. We can’t accomplish any of our goals and objectives unless we have a high performing team to do the work. In today’s market, we have to connect with our employees, listen to them, and provide growth opportunities. Some people want to go into management, some just want to be an expert in whatever realm they’re in, and some people want to grow into a different area. We’re working with our managers to understand what their employees are looking for; we want to make sure we’re as employee centric as possible so that we can keep our turnover rate low and make sure we’re recruiting and retaining top talent. That is really first and foremost in our minds.
The second, also not a surprise, is cybersecurity prevention and awareness. That has been top-of-mind for a long time and continues to be. We’ve all been busy putting in systems to help us to feel secure, but you can never let your guard down and feel like you’re safe. We’re all vulnerable, and so, continuing to work on that space is critical.
Last is our strategic plan. We developed a 3-year strategic plan that will be refreshed annually; we developed it in the framework of people, process, and technology. One-third of our strategic plan is around our people, and there are always processes that need to be optimized. One of our priorities over the new few years is to take the feedback that I heard on the listening tour, and, where there are opportunities, create workgroups and get people together to iron out some of the challenging points and figure out how we can be more efficient and effective.
On having a “rolling strategic plan”
Gamble: You said the strategic plan will be refreshed annually; I would think agility plays a big role in that.
Pollack: Exactly. Things change so fast in technology; to come up with a three-year strategic plan and think you can march off the three years without refreshing it is way too much of a stretch. And so, we decided to make it a 3-year strategic plan, but a rolling three years. Every year, we’ll take the time to acknowledge what we’ve accomplished and reprioritize based on the landscape at that moment.
It’s about making us a better IT organization, because we also have our project portfolio and our capital roadmap, which support the business. With this strategic plan, the goal is to make ourselves a better organization, which affects all of our users, but we’re looking at it from a slightly different angle. The strategic plan is inward facing and our project portfolio, and our capital portfolio are outwardly facing.
We want to be able to march through our strategic plan and try to be a department that’s continually improving ourselves as well as helping the organization to achieve their goals.
On “building a bridge” between research & clinical practice
Gamble: You mentioned optimization as being a constant focus. Can you talk more about what you’re doing there?
Pollack: It’s interesting; we’re approaching our 10-year anniversary with Epic, and we’ll never stop optimizing. We’re always going to be doing it. That’s just what we’ll do. But we’ve also been trying to shift to make sure we’re giving a little more energy and support to the research mission. Now that we have so much data from 10 years of using Epic, we want to better connect our research community with our clinical community in both directions.
Ten years ago, we were so focused on the electronic medical record we didn’t really have the ability to give that part of our organization the attention they needed. In our evolution, we’re spending a lot more time these days supporting the research community and building the bridge so that research and clinical practice can be better connected.
On creating an AI council
Last year, we established a health AI council. The idea is we have all these researchers building AI tools and algorithms to help our clinical practice, but we haven’t really had a smooth path to get those research-based tools into practice, and then for clinicians and whoever is using those tools to give feedback to enhance those algorithms. So, developing those pathways to validate the tools, implement the tools, and provide feedback on those tools in a timely manner is really where we’re going.
We’re spending a lot of time trying to optimize; it’s very different than what we doing 5 or 10 years ago. We’ve evolved to a different level.
On why informatics “takes a special person”
Gamble: When you look back at your own experience and how you found informatics, do you use that as motivation to encourage more people to pursue it?
Pollack: I love informatics. That’s probably not a surprise to anybody who knows me. I find it fascinating, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. But it takes a certain type of person; we’re wired differently. There are some people who love the type of work where there’s a lot of uncertainty; where every day is a little bit different, and things are up in the air a lot of the time as you’re exploring options and brainstorming. On the other hand, some people prefer to work in a more structured environment that’s more predictable. Either one is great. You have to know yourself and what you like because when you get the right person in the right job, amazing things happen. But it’s not the right job for everyone. You have to do some soul searching and figure out what type of work you enjoy and what you find most satisfying. But I’m certainly a cheerleader for clinical informatics. There’s never a dull moment.