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One-on-One with Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CIO John Halamka

March 31, 2009
by Kate Gamble
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Halamka discusses how he integrates social media into his CIO strategy.

Arguably one of the busiest people in healthcare IT, John Halamka, M.D., is CIO at both Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a 621-bed facility that is a teaching hospital of HMS. He is also Chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, CEO of the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium (MA-SHARE), Chair of Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel (HITSP), and a practicing emergency physician. Recently, Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Kate Gamble caught up with Halamka to discuss the growing use of social media and the ramifications of the stimulus package.

KG: What are you up to now? I’m sure you’re traveling somewhere.

JH: I am. I’m on my way to meet with Eric Lander, who runs the Broad Institute. He’s co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and he asked for a briefing on what the stimulus is all about and where it is going.

KG: That’s such a huge topic right now.

JH: Right, so when President Obama’s science and technology committee said they needed a briefing, I just cancelled my morning and I’m going to give them a personal briefing.

Everyone’s talking about it; every other email is about stimulus this or stimulus that. So I figure every CIO in America is going to be asked by their board to present what the stimulus really means — what are all the details. So my blog this morning is a Power Point presentation which I have open-sourced for the entire world saying, ‘here’s a set of slides to describe everything the stimulus is. Use it as you wish. Hope it saves you time.’

It’s just a short slide deck that will hopefully save thousands of hours.

KG: I’ve noticed that a lot of the conferences — especially HIMSS — are revolving a lot of their educational content around the stimulus package, which I think is a great idea.

JH: I’m actually giving the HIMSS keynote on that topic. They asked me to do a complete, comprehensive overview of the stimulus, the future of CCHIT, HITSP, NAHIT, governance policies. I said, ‘sure, as long as I can get my slides in seven minutes before my presentation.’

KG: How on earth do you summarize all of that into one presentation?

JH: Exactly. The problem is that every day when we wake up, the landscape changes. The keynote I’m doing in on April 7, and we have no idea what’s going to be happening between now and then.

KG: That’s the beauty of blogs — the information is fresh. Now I know that in addition to your blog, you also use Twitter and other types of social media. I know that some people see tools like Twitter and blogs as just more activities that take up time, while others say that they can help manage time better. I’m guessing you’re in that second camp.

JH: What’s really interesting is that my blog has actually become the way I organize my life, as opposed to a distraction from it. As an example, this morning at 7 a.m., I’m getting emails about what’s going on at the National Committee for Vital and Health Statistics at CGHS (CareGroup Health System) and I think about that and say, there’s a whole lot of profound policy issues going on here. What I’m going to do is write over the next day a summary of where I think the country should go, based on all the input I had this morning.

And I’m going to post that, and it’s going to generate dialogue and it’s going to be useful guidance for people inside my organization and people in my region. So it’s really interesting that this has become my communication modality and… some people say I’m a thought leader, and it’s because I do this blog.

KG: So then you can use the Twitter site to drive more people to the blog, right?

JH: What I do with Twitter is not only do I auto-post all my blog entries, but I’ll use it when there are events happening very quickly and I have my Blackberry and I instant message Twitter and say, ‘I am now sitting in the Senate and here’s what’s happening.’

KG: And it’s set up so that you can’t say a lot, but you can reach a large number of people with one post.

JH: Yeah, I have about 700 people who follow me on Twitter, and I don’t really know who these people are. But it seems like one aspect of social media, for me, is guiding the next generation of health informatics folks; they like to see what I’m thinking and what I’m doing, because it helps them in their careers. So there’s actually kind of a social responsibility aspect to all of this.