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Adding Focus to the 'Meaningful' Journey

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What we can all learn from John Halamka’s HMS departure

CIOs and healthcare IT professionals are naturally busy people. We all know this. Especially in this era of healthcare reform and meaningful use which requires complex IT infrastructure to connect healthcare organizations to form health information exchanges and accountable care organizations. That’s why it might be helpful in these most “interesting of times” to take a page from Dr. John Halamka’s book (or a post from his blog) and deepen focus, rather than broaden scope.

Recently, Halamka announced in his blog his departure as CIO of Harvard Medical School (HMS) to fully meet the needs of his customers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), where he is full-time CIO. In his post he said: “As the part time (50%) CIO of Harvard Medical School, the tools and technology required to support new scientific approaches will require increasing amounts of my time. . .I believe that Harvard Medical School requires a full time dedicated CIO with a skill set in highly scalable infrastructure and the tools needed to support emerging science.”

Halamka told me yesterday that because of the range of work that he and his team at BIDMC will be doing, BIDMC deserves his full attention. He explained that his team will be focusing on clinical registries, health information exchange, and business intelligence required to support the accountable care organization growing around BIDMC, as well as 5010, ICD-10, and meaningful use Stage 2 preparation. “I've looked ahead at the work required for healthcare reform and it requires depth of focus rather than breadth of activity,” he says. “Thus, it's not about the pace of work, it's about the nature of the work.”

He also said that his publications and academic work have concentrated on healthcare IT, rather than educational IT or basic science IT, so it makes sense for him to pull away from his post at the academic center. He plans to increase his time in federal and state activities to develop HIE standards; he was recently named the co-chair of the Massachusetts HIT/HIE Advisory Group, the multi-stakeholder body guiding Massachusetts’ healthcare information exchange efforts.

As further requirements for Stages 2 and 3 of meaningful use begin to pile up, along with the strengthening of security rules through HIPAA, I think job titles like CPO/CSO, CTO, CMIO, and CNIO will have to become more prevalent to share in the CIOs’ responsibilities. That will demand an increased intensity of focus from the CIO on parsing the information needs of an organization in this era of portable health information, rather than a broadening of scope of responsibilities. Also, as healthcare organizations become larger and larger systems, with increasing burdens of information coordination and sharing of best practices, CIOs will really have to hone in on specific goals to get through all this.

That’s why it makes sense that Halamka decided to take a straightforward approach and focus on his needs and the needs of his organization. “My life is not about fame or fortune; it's about making a difference,” Halamka said. “I believe that healthcare IT is the area in which I can make the biggest difference.

So, with Dr. Halamka’s example in mind—and some advice from my grandpa, Dr. David Waxman, a former executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical School, who used to say, “simplify your life,” when things would get too hectic—now’s the time to focus on the ‘meaningful’ journey ahead and dive into the deep end.