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One-on-One with Albany Medical CIO Buddy Hickman

April 21, 2008
by root
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Buddy Hickman talks about the importance of cultivating an environment that leads change and grows change leaders.

Albany Medical Center encompasses the 631-bed Albany Medical Center Hospital, Albany Medical College and the Albany Medical Center Foundation, Inc. At the helm of this academic health sciences center is Senior Vice President and CIO George “Buddy” Hickman, who was recently named CHIME/HIMSS John E. Gall, Jr. CIO of the Year Award. HCI Associate Editor Kate Huvane, who was in attendance at HIMSS when Hickman delivered a presentation during a workshop entitled, “Introduction to Healthcare and IT Enabling Technologies,” recently had a chance to catch up with Hickman and chat about his work.

KH: In February, you were named CIO of the year. Obviously that’s a big honor. Were you surprised to win what is considered a lifetime achievement award for CIOs?

BH: I was most surprised. The first surprise came when a notable colleague in the industry phoned and suggested that he was intending to nominate me, as long as I consented. I know a lot of the cast of 18 that preceded me in receiving the award, and I’ve heard the legends about those I don’t know personally. So I pretty much discounted myself, and then there was a subsequent conversation where he garnered me in and my CEO also agreed that he wanted to support my nomination, so we said ‘let’s give it a go.’ I’d gotten the calls from both Steve Lieber (president and CEO, HIMSS) and Rich Correll (president and CEO, CHIME) in December telling me I’d received the award, and yes, I was surprised, and then I had to sit on the good news until February.

KH: It must’ve been difficult to keep that under wraps for two months.

BH: It was, but I had to. I was afraid they’d disqualify me if I told anyone (laughs).

KH: How long have you served as CIO at Albany Medical Center?

BH: I’ve been at Albany Medical for about four and a half years as senior vice president and CIO. Just to give you a little more background on that, I did a consulting job here as an interim chief administrative officer for most of calendar year of 1995 when I was still with Ernst & Young. Over the course of time, I’ve kept in contact with Jim Barba, the president and CEO (at Albany Medical Center), and eventually made the right decision to come back to work here on a permanent basis after talking about that with him a few times along the way.

KH: So he was a good person to keep in touch with.

BH: Absolutely. I was on my way elsewhere. I thought I was going to be taking a job at Florida. But then one thing led to another as Jim and I were talking about it from a referencing standpoint. And now here we are. In the wintertime I find myself weighing Albany versus Florida (laughs), but I’m sure I made the right decision.

KH: This is your third academic health system CIO role. Where did you previously serve as CIO?

BH: I was the CIO at the West Virginia United Health System, which is the system for the West Virginia University family of affiliated hospitals and organizations, for a few years. I cut my teeth as a CIO at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh which was then the flagship for the former Allegheny Health Services organization, where I went in to do an IS turnaround job and also built a system-wide supporting data center back in the late 80s-early 90s.

I started my career at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn., which is my hometown. I spent about a dozen years in big-firm consulting, first with Pricewaterhouse, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, then more so with Ernst & Young, being eventually admitted to the partnership at Albany Medical. My whole career has been health industry-focused, although I’ve held both operational and IT roles, which I think has been important to my own development and how I generally approach some of the problem-solving in the CIO role.

KH: Going a little further back, you were 29 years old when you were first hired as CIO at Allegheny. That seems pretty young for such an important role. How did you handle that?

BH: Yeah, I try not to let that get out of the bag too often. But it explains why I’m so youthful now, years later (laughs). It was an unusual situation. It was an organization where I had done some brief client work and I had a mentor within the firm that I was working for who actually went to work for the parent organization, so that was a clear pull into the organization.

I think as far as organizations of that size go, it’s probably an early time in the career to give something like that a go, but on the other hand, I had been given a lot of opportunities along the way to stretch and learn a lot of things prior to that, so it worked.

KH: You’ve had experience in both operational and IT roles. How does this bleed into your leadership style as a CIO?

BH: That’s a tough question. I’m not sure I can describe my leadership style and philosophies, but I have a whole bunch of people who work with me who I bet would be glad to tell you the good and the bad of all of that.