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Ken Lawonn Chief Information Officer Alegent Health SystemOmaha, Neb.

December 25, 2007
by Mark Hagland
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In tune with industry trends and not afraid of change, Ken Lawonn has taken Alegent to the forefront of healthcare

Ken lawonn

Ken Lawonn

Ken Lawonn is a CIO not afraid to take risks in order to achieve results. In his six years as CIO at the eight-hospital Alegent Health System in Omaha, Neb., Lawonn has worked collaboratively to create innovative clinical information systems and to help lead his organization towards a high level of quality and transparency.

Lawonn and the other leaders of this co-sponsored health system (its two corporate sponsors are the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives and the locally based Immanuel Health Systems, a Lutheran health system) have been working hard to integrate clinical information computing across its eight hospitals. What have been Lawonn's major achievements at Alegent to date?

“One would be with regard to the provision of advanced clinical systems and the electronic medical record to support quality and patient safety,” Lawonn says. “One of the things I'm very proud of is our advances in that area, which started with the opening of our new hospital in 2004. But that was really a part of a more comprehensive effort to drive access to information at the point of care, in support of clinicians. And one of the neat things about that was the way in which we were able to engage the clinicians on that strategy.”

In other words, engaging clinicians throughout the development process — from gaining consensus around the strategy in the first place to helping determine the elements of the advanced clinical IS needed to execute the strategy, whose broadest theme is called the “quality revolution” across the entire Alegent organization.

One key innovative element in this was the creation of the Physician Implementation Team, which involved practicing physicians (as well as nurses and pharmacists) directly in making choices for the organization's EMR development. The implementation of the health system's EMR is ongoing, with four of its eight hospitals fully live, and the other four scheduled to go live this year.

The other achievement Lawonn is proud of is his part in the health system's work on quality and cost transparency. This work is also an example of the use of creative problem-solving to bring about change, he adds. After Alegent CEO Wayne Sensor had publicly committed the organization to providing hospital pricing transparency within one year, Lawonn sat down with CFO Scott Wooten, and the IT and finance teams at Alegent worked out the mechanisms for providing information to support what became the groundbreaking MyCost pricing tool for local consumers interested in procedure prices. And, they got the project off the ground and the tool live within a year, using technology they conceived internally and then co-developed with the Solvang, Calif.-based portals vendor Medseek. It allows patients to enter information on their particular health insurers and plans and to get very specific data back on their co-pays, out-of-pocket costs, and costs to their insurers, for a range of medical and surgical procedures.

On the quality transparency side, Lawonn (who at the time was responsible for quality and risk management across the health system, in addition to being CIO) engaged clinician leaders and health system executives in an iterative dialogue that preceded the publication of key quality indicators for the health system, beginning first with internal publication for six months, and then public reporting of key measures. In this area, as in the pricing transparency innovation with MyCost, Alegent has been out in front in its local and regional market.

It's that combination of leadership and the ability to use information technology to further organization-wide goals that makes Lawonn exemplary of the strategically focused CIO. And sometimes it involves taking risks.

For example, Lawonn notes, “On the EMR side, we set a requirement that in order to practice at one of our hospitals, you'll have to use the computer. And we heard from people that some might go elsewhere. But we were committed to this. And our medical staff stood with us. When you're right,” he reflects, “you have to be a risk-taker and do things others haven't done yet.”

Lawonn says that when it comes to his own managerial characteristics, he is fortunate in that he strongly matches the organizational and executive culture at Alegent, which is risk-taking-oriented and change-positive.

“I'd say I very much match our organizational culture,” he says. “I'd also say that you have to be willing to be bold and take a lead, but also willing to realize that technology often has to be an enabler in the background, to support the culture of an operation. So you need to be willing to be not in the limelight, but be in the support role and not be into it for the ego. I'm willing to take risks, but I'm very humble, and I'm not looking for the limelight.”

How can other CIOs make the same kinds of strategic gains for their organizations? It'ssimple, at least in principle. “The key,” he says, “is to really participate in the strategy development of your own organization, and then to really facilitate that strategy.”