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It’s Not Just About Technology: An Interview With James Turnbull, CIO of the Year

January 11, 2013
by Rajiv Leventhal
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The role of CIOs is expanding, and demanding challenges are being met
James Turnbull

On Jan. 7, James Turnbull, chief information officer (CIO) at the Salt Lake City-based University of Utah Health Care (UUHC), was named the 2012 John E. Gall, Jr. CIO of the Year by the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) and the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).

Turnbull’s distinguished career in the healthcare industry spans more than 37 years, split between the Canadian and American healthcare systems. His accomplishments include the deployment of electronic medical records (EMRs) and installation of computerized physician order entry (CPOE) systems at three different health systems with three different vendor products.

Prior to joining UUHC­—the intermountain west’s largest academic health care system—Turnbull served as senior vice president and CIO at The Children’s Hospital in Denver from 2000-2007, and senior vice president and CIO at Sarasota Fla. Memorial Hospital from 1993-2000. Children’s was also recognized for its advancement of EMRs by the Orem, Ut.-based KLAS as the Most Integrated Children’s Hospital in 2007. Additionally, Turnbull is the 1996 and 1998 recipient of Computerworld magazine’s Smithsonian Award.

Healthcare Informatics Assistant Editor Rajiv Leventhal recently sat down with Turnbull to talk about his role as CIO and the current and future state of health IT. Excerpts from that interview are below.

 In your 37 years in the healthcare industry, what are you most proud of?

Whenever I look back, what really makes me proud is seeing people who have worked for me move on in their careers. Some of the folks who have worked for me in the past have gone on to become presidents of healthcare systems, while some have become CIOs of other organizations. I have advised a lot of them to go back to school and advance their educational degrees, and many of them have done that. It has been fun to see them really grow and mature in terms of their professional careers.

What is a big challenge that you have faced since becoming CIO?

I think the biggest challenge I have faced—and this is a challenge for many CIOs—is to have the organization understand that it’s not all about technology, and to not put us in a box where it is all about IT. Many of us (CIOs) bring a lot of strategic planning to the table and we have a good understanding of healthcare operations. It’s a tough box to get out of when people pigeonhole you as “the IT guy.” In that sense, we have a lot more work to do, as we can leverage our experience and expertise. You have seen a lot of CIOs begin to branch out—Rick Schooler (Orlando Regional Medical Center) has pharmacy reporting to him, which is very unusual. And quite a few CIOs have been taking on things such as the materials management side of the world. Personally, I [take care of] health information management (medical records), and more of us are starting to bring that within the IT division.

How has meaningful use specifically affected your job?

I always laugh when the term “meaningful use” comes up, because it immediately makes me think I’ve spent the last 98 percent of my life in an era of “meaningless use.” It’s an interesting change. I am seeing that it has really gotten the attention of the medical staff perhaps more than ever before. The medical staff here at the University of Utah has taken a much more active interest in information management and clinical information systems. They are starting to get more engaged and take advantage of the information we already have. That journey for us started in 1993 when we established the first data warehouse here on site and started building a data warehouse team. It’s becoming a very different world.

How would you categorize the current state of health IT, and what do you see in its future?

Well, there’s no doubt that it’s emerged as a key player. When you look at technology, environment and healthcare, it’s such a key component of everything we’re doing in terms of getting Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) established, and in terms of the decision support and business intelligence requirements that are required for us to make changes and adapt to what’s a very different healthcare delivery system. I don’t think a healthcare delivery system can reshape its model or the characteristics of the organization without engaging the IT team and making them a key element in all the changes that are going on. Every strategy we have at the University of Utah is dependent on information technology, and I don’t think we’re unique.

What does make University of Utah Health Care unique?

I think any academic medical center gives you the opportunity to engage with the faculty from the medical school, pharmacy school and nursing school. We also get to engage with researchers and start looking forward to what’s coming down the pipe that can help us change the practice of healthcare. Thus, it’s a little different from a more traditional community hospital environment. We also get engaged with the students that are coming through, so that makes it different from a day-to-day basis, as the focus is much broader. There is a clinical side but also an educational/research element.

What will people remember about healthcare IT in 2012?