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A Chat with Catholic Healthcare West's New CIO, Part III

January 23, 2008
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Forty two hospitals? No problem. Ben Williams has it all under control.

Benjamin Williams recently joined San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) as senior vice president and CIO, with a mandate to lead the consolidated technology efforts of the organization's 42 hospitals across California, Arizona and Nevada. As part of his duties, Williams will oversee the organization's business intelligence, IT and clinical information systems, including the ongoing rollout of CareConnect, CHW’s EHR and CPOE system. With a team of over 1,000 and an annual budget of $230 million, Williams will have quite an army to execute his vision. Anthony Guerra, HCI editor-in-chief, recently has a chance to catch up with Williams — the former senior vice president of information services and CIO at 14-hospital St. Joseph Health System in Orange, Calif. — to talk about his plans for the future.

Part I of our interview with Williams, he discussed the reasons for his move to CHW and the evolution of the CIO role.

In Part II, he talked about the importance of involving clinicians in systems rollouts.

AG: I would imagine it takes at least six month before you even know what changes you may want to make, in terms of staff structure or particular vendor contracts. Is that the case?

BW: Well, two month in, I have a pretty good idea. Since I graduated from St. Joseph’s before entering the CHW world, I think there are a lot of best practices and learning that I am bringing with me. At the same time, I’m learning the uniqueness of CHW. It will take a little time. I think the expectation here is relatively high that there will be some level of change. I think we want to continue to evolve our care delivery model and focus more on the future. Increasingly, my role is to ensure that we are not just delivering technology today but helping build where we are going tomorrow. And that is somewhat of a different skill set in terms of where we are and where the industry has been for the past four or five years. All those things kind of come together. So I expect in the next six months, you’re right, to have a fairly structured plan of what were going to keep, what we are going to change, how we are going to be organized. And again, that’s a normal part of leadership and structure change.

AG: Can you take me through, on a high level, your one to three year to-do list?

BW: Overall, our mission is to deliver excellent, compassionate and affordable healthcare. So in addition to engaging with the business side, I think it’s critical to ensure we have the right vision and capabilities around our clinical care transformation process. We have 41 hospitals, we have a big team, and we have good capital, but it’s always a challenge to manage that demand. The demand is very high. So I want to make sure that we have the right cadence and the right plan and the right organizational understanding of that program that will ensure the highest outcomes.

I can’t tell you how high the demand is in this health system and across the nation for advanced clinical systems to be in now, to be effective, and to transform. And it took healthcare a long time to get to that point, and now the demand is exceeding the supply, so that’s going to be a challenge. Another area that is very important is making sure that our governance process works well. The IT governance process, I believe, starts with strategic vision, starts with good education and understanding, and it also must have great business practices around prioritization and setting goals and that type of a thing throughout the organization. An organization this size, with so many moving parts, really has to have strong governance from the very top. It has to have local IS planning councils that are in line with the overall mission, but also give local levels of authority. Then we have other system processes, such as our capital committees, governance boards, the board, and other things that I want to tie together. So governance IT prioritization is very important.

The other area I want to focus on is what I call the brain trust of IT. As we moved from the model of support and operational excellence into clinical leadership and deployment of new technologies, we need to make sure we have the intellectual property within our own organization to lead and to sustain that kind of innovation, and so building the team and making sure that we have that level of leadership is going to be very important.

AG: In my opinion, it takes a lot of courage to go from a 15 hospital system to a 41 hospital system. I would imagine for a lot of CIOs, as with any of us, it’s easy to get complacent — you know the staff, you know the job, etc. But you obviously decided to give yourself another big challenge, Why? And what advice can you give to others about making the big move?

BW: That’s a very insightful question. The things that I think about have less to with the size of the organization, and more about the content of what they are doing. And I think CHW draws me in for a couple of reasons. One, it has a great mission that overarches all that we do. Second, I think whether it is 15 hospitals or 41 hospitals, the type of person and what drives me is my level of experience in good business practices and team organization skills, relationship development, all those ingredients I think are scalable to different size organizations. Those are the fundamentals. I think specific knowledge of technical operations, detailed full knowledge of individual vendors and their features and functions, and various component pieces of IT are important, but just like I talked about earlier, the role of CIO has changed and the demand has changed. I think the skills that are required that we spoke about have to be scalable and should fit the organization, and that’s the way I looked at it. Yeah, it’s a big organization, but the thing I see is it requires a good effort to travel and stay connected and to build relationship, but those are the fun part of the job. I think the challenge of being able to contribute and being part of an organization this big draws me because it has such a great history and great promise for the future. And, again, it’s less about how many computers and staff we have, it’s a much bigger vision in my mind.

AG: Well, it sounds like you’re energized and excited about the future.

BW: It’s exciting to talk about this because of the passion around our whole operation. I think the CIO role has changed significantly. In a way, it can be a big scary world out there, but I think the reward of IT finally being at the decision table of organizations requires a very different skill set, and a very strong passion around being part of that team and bringing the skills to be able to execute.

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