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Harry Lukens Senior vice president and CIO Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network Allentown, Pa.

December 25, 2007
by Daphne Lawrence
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Harry Lukens has more than a small group of admirers at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network — he has a cult following

Harry lukens

Harry Lukens

Many people say Harry Lukens has a cult following. And they may be right. With a turnover rate of just 1 percent in his IT department, a slew of awards, and a long list of advanced IT projects under his belt, it's clear this maverick knows how to make things happen. One thing is for sure — his enthusiasm, honesty and creativity are contagious.

Speaking of creativity, Lukens, senior vice president and CIO of Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network, a three-hospital system based in Allentown, Pa. established a “Wild Idea Team,” a multidisciplinary group that focuses on solving tough problems throughout the hospital.

“You're really only bound by your imagination,” Lukens says. His advanced ICU, or “Doc in a Box,” as he calls it, is a good example. It's basically an intensivist and a few nurses in a data center located geographically between Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest hospitals — which are 20 miles apart. This remote monitoring of the two hospital ICUs uses video conferencing and real time data. Eight monitors in front of each doctor or nurse monitor indicators like blood pressure. “We can literally count the freckles on your nose,” he says.

The system is from Tel Aviv-based iMDsoft, and it's been win-win for everyone involved, from the finance department to the patients, Lukens says. “This system and the way we deployed it has saved lives,” he says. It's been in use for 18 months and, says Lukens, “It's the coolest thing I've ever done.”

“Doc in a Box” is a good example of how Lukens operates. He approached the difficulty his system was having in staffing enough intensivists the same way he approaches everything — with an open mind and profound ability to listen.

“The whole idea was percolating in a bunch of different places.” At one point, several doctors suggested a centralized monitoring system to make up for the lack of intensivists. “Everybody said what a pain in the butt that's going to be,” he says, and questioned how they were going to be able to do it. “I said to my Wild Idea Team, ‘Hey look, we need this, go do God's work and find me centralized monitoring systems that do this.’ And away we went.”

Lukens's Wild Idea Team is already legendary in the world of healthcare IT. “The whole idea behind it is that no idea is too dumb,” Lukens says. He says he got the concept after being accosted by people suggesting ideas. To answer this, Lukens created a forum where some of those ideas could become reality. Lukens uses what he calls a real mish-mash of people on the team, from all areas of the hospital. Anyone can submit ideas or suggestions, and then the Wild Idea Team is charged with trying to figure out if something makes sense — or if it is just nonsense. The proof of the Lukens's draw is that there is a long waiting list to get on the 12-member team.

Lukens also has deep appreciation for talents and abilities that are, he says, too often overlooked in the workplace. He recognizes his staff for what they are outside the hospital. “Too many people say, for example, ‘You're a financial analyst and that's what you've got to do.’ We forget that when they go home they run church organizations and coach soccer teams — they have all these other skills. My idea is, let's tap into that. And we have a good time at it.”

Even his doctors get caught up in Lukens fervor. Lehigh is a hospital where less than 40 percent of the doctors are employed and the rest are community physicians. Yet they still listen to Lukens. “My CEO told me the doctors believe Harry can make anything happen,” Lukens says. How does he do it? By stripping away obstacles — and by his deep belief that patient care comes first.

Lehigh has had CPOE installed for five years and, in the beginning, says Lukens, getting his doctors to use the system was truly an effort. “You're changing their culture,” he says. But Lukens says being upfront from the get go worked. “When it came time to get them on CPOE, I told them, ‘Doc, this is going to make your day longer. It's going to be hard work and, at the end of the day, you're going to want to shoot me. But it's better for patient care.’ Even the grumpiest doc, at the end of the day, wants better patient care.”

He provided education wherever and whenever physicians demanded it, and compensated them financially for their time. And he appealed to the natural competitiveness of doctors: Lukens started posting compliance percentages, in effect causing residency programs to compete against each other. He even gave away trips for doctors once a month as another incentive.

And Lukens' hardcore integrity filled in any gaps. He believes honesty has to be rule number one. “The first time they catch you lying or even stretching the truth, it's over.” He believes you have to be brutally honest with people about the impact of technology because, the fact is, initially things get harder.

He's also the first one to step up and take responsibility when things go wrong. “You can't really lay it off on someone like the vendor, you have to say, ‘I apologize. I know I screwed up your day.’ It's always I, I, I. I screwed up, I apologize, I'm responsible.”

Lukens has advice for frustrated CIOs. “They need to remember why we got in this business. We can make a difference, whether we're in a 50-bed hospital or a 10-hospital system. We can take technology and make doctors' and patients' lives easier.”

He says that his peers could work in any number of industries, but they chose to be healthcare CIOs. “If a banking system goes down, you may not be able to get your money for a day. Oh well. If one of my systems goes down, there may be 50 babies at the other end. You've got to remember that on the days you're getting pounded.”