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Catching Up with Tim Zoph, and Parsing the Current Inflection Point in U.S. Healthcare

September 19, 2016
by Mark Hagland
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Tim Zoph shares his perspectives on where things are headed next in U.S. healthcare

Chicagoan Tim Zoph has spent decades in healthcare executive leadership, including 21-plus years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago, between January 1994 and October 2015, where he served in a few different positions, including CIO and as the chief executive over facilities development for that organization. While he was at the organization, it grew to become a $5 billion academic medical center, and a recognized leader in quality, education and technology. In addition to his CIO role, Tim had management responsibility for the Facility Design and Construction team and Enterprise Project Management Office, where had oversight for designing, building and activating over $1 billion worth in new facility projects.

Zoph is particularly well known among the members of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) as a long-term faculty member and program director for the CHIME Boot Camp program. He also was one of the CIOs whose insights provided material for Graham Weller's recent book The CIO Edge: Seven Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results, from Harvard Business Press Books.

This spring, Zoph joined the Naperville, Ill.-based Impact Advisors consulting firm as client executive and strategist. At Impact Advisors, he splits his time almost evenly between working directly with client provider organizations on strategy, development work, new facilities planning, and cybersecurity, and on helping the consulting firm overall with its own strategy and client service direction. He spoke recently with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland about his perspectives on where healthcare and healthcare IT are headed these days. Below are excerpts from their interview.

You seem to be enjoying the work you’re doing these days. Tell me a little bit about how you’re dividing your time between direct client consulting and strategizing with the firm.

I’m spending about half of my time working directly with clients, which is great. I’ve got clients in both New York and Seattle. It has to do with where my time can be most valuable in working with clients. It tends to be with larger, academic organizations—the more complex organizations that I’ve worked in, in the industry, capitalizing on that. And when you run big organizations as a senior executive, in some ways, it’s hard to be an individual contributor, because your time is so tight and is so tied into management priorities. So this is a great time for me to have the focus and the thoughtful time to really research and be more reflective about where we’re headed. So I feel like I’m a better individual contributor now than when I was a senior executive, simply because of the challenges of managing those roles.

Tim Zoph

Looking around at the overall landscape of the industry, it seems clear that U.S. healthcare is at something of an inflection point. I’ve often compared it to the moment during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad when people were having to break ground in the Rocky Mountains, literally in some cases with picks and shovels, to lay track. Does it feel to you as though there is an analogy there with what’s going on in the U.S. healthcare industry now?

Yes, I agree, I would use a lot of the same analogies. We’ve made significant investments in foundational systems in the industry. Yet I still think the industry is challenged to get the most value out of those systems and to make sure that we’re laying those foundations correctly and moving to the next steps. So having simplified, scalable, interoperable systems, is so important to get to the next level. And to me, that next level involves knowledge-based systems, and the population-based systems. How do I aggregate those systems and harvest the knowledge inside those systems? That’s so important. And interoperability involves a combination of challenges facing vendors, CIOs, and the industry as a whole; yet we’re not today still exchanging information at key points in transitions of care, and that’s holding us back. And patients today are still left fundamentally being the messengers. So we have to make the systems simpler, scalable, interoperable, and more easily manageable. So we have to turn the page on that foundational strategy, to get to begin to become knowledge-based.

We need to get to the next level in healthcare, and a lot of that will relate to how we better connect with patients—really engaging patients directly in their health, and engaging them so that they feel that they’re true members of the care team, and are contributing directly to their record. We talk about being patient-centric, but that still leaves us with a very small footprint overall in patients’ lives. And mobility, among other things, will be so important. So we have to take advantage of these foundational technologies, and layer up on them. So not only do we have to scale up, but also scale in, by allowing innovation to occur more organically. And part of that is about technology, but it’s also about collaboration and attitude. And we have to be prepared for that, because it will transform our system as we know it today.

Do you think that the leaders of inpatient organizations fully understand how much things will shift to outpatient over the next decade?