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Lynn Witherspoon, M.D. System Vice President and CIO Ochsner Health SystemNew Orleans

December 25, 2007
by Mark Hagland
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Through consensus building and communication, Lynn Witherspoon, M.D., has built Ochsner Health System into a virtual mini-RHIO

Lynn witherspoon, m.d.

Lynn Witherspoon, M.D.

Lynn Witherspoon, M.D. is unusual in a number of ways. For one thing, he's one of the few hospital system CIOs in the country who is not only a physician but has a background specifically in diagnostic imaging, as a nuclear medicine specialist. That alone makes him different from the average CIO.

More importantly, Witherspoon, system vice president and CIO for the Ochsner Health System, has been using his insights as a clinician to help in the effort to optimize healthcare for the residents of post-Katrina New Orleans. As his organization grew after Hurricane Katrina (Ochsner acquired several former Tenet hospitals, as the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare has moved in recent years to pull back on its nationwide presence), Witherspoon took a strong leadership role in helping to connect physicians to other physicians, to Ochsner hospital facilities, and to their patients, across the still-shaky metropolitan area.

In his role as a facilitator for care optimization and efficiency, Witherspoon has helped to create integration and access for clinicians to clinical information systems across what is now a seven-hospital, 35-clinic integrated health system. Not only has he led the shift towards a comprehensive picture archiving and communications system (PACS), he has also led the evolution of the organization's overall EMR and clinical information system during a time of great flux and uncertainty.

Asked about his greatest accomplishments of the past two years, he cites two. First is the conversion of what had been disparate hospital information systems into what is becoming a comprehensive “community infrastructure” for information systems across the seven-hospital Oschner Health System, including the former Tenet facilities. At the beginning of November, Ochsner Baptist Medical Center (formerly Baptist Hospital) had gone live, with all three former Tenet hospitals scheduled to go live with the system by March.

“We've basically standardized the IS environment, the billing, the core EMR, and pharmacy, lab and radiology,” Witherspoon reports.

Second is the ongoing implementation of the organization's EMR, which was self-developed, though further enabled by commercial products.

“What's noteworthy here is that, in the context of the community hospital acquisitions, we've enabled that platform to be accessed anywhere via Web; and we've created a portal link for the doctors,” Witherspoon says. “This doesn't sound like a big deal on the surface, but the idea that the community doctors have access to Ochsner clinical records, it's sort of a mini-RHIO, really.”

And while other multi-hospital, integrated health systems may have the luxury of being able to develop community-wide inter-connectivity and IT integration over time and with broad strategic initiatives in mind, at Ochsner there has been and continues to be a strong sense of urgency about all this, Witherspoon notes.

“Our perspective is really colored by our Katrina experience, and it's really all about what this organization can do to help its community get back on its feet and have access to better medical care,” he says.

So just what kinds of problem-solving and managerial skills are required in an environment like Ochsner's? Some of what has been required of Witherspoon has been a combination of people, political, and strategic skills, he says. This is particularly true with reference to the health system-wide EMR implementation, he says. Because of the Ochsner acquisition of three former Tenet hospitals, many staff members in the system were both becoming accustomed to being employees of what had until recently been a competitor organization, while also being asked to participate in an EMR rollout/expansion. Creating just the right environment around EMR implementation was especially critical to go-live success in this situation, he emphasizes.

What about his own personal qualities? “I would say that I'm a very participatory management-style CIO,” Witherspoon reflects. “I seek, process, and appreciate input, and not just from my next layer down of management reports. My door is wide-open right now,” he says, “and everyone in the department knows they're welcome to come in and speak with me. We have a rather open environment here. At the end of the day, I am responsible for decisions, but I spend a lot of time building consensus, and making sure everyone understands what we're doing and why we're doing it. Also, I am pretty metrics-focused. If we cannot measure it and track it and benchmark it, and understand trajectory and direction, it's very much more difficult to manage.”

What can his CIO colleagues around the country do to achieve the kinds of success he has at Ochsner Health? Witherspoon reflects that CIOs need to spend more time building relationships with clinician leaders and other executives and managers in their organizations, and in fact, just spend more time in their organizations to begin with.

“I worry about the prototypical hospital CIO who spends three or four years at a hospital and leaves, who's brought in to refurbish the IT infrastructure, and then things don't go well,” he says. “The thing that's been most helpful to me is to spend as much time as I can with my clinical and operational partners; my peers throughout the organization all know me very well, and I'm accessible to them, as they are to me. Strategic alignment is important, but relationships and communication are the heart of it, and if you expect to stay in your job longer than five years, you've got to work on it.”