On June 16, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) announced that it was bestowing its second annual State Advocacy Award on Russell P. Branzell, vice president-IS and CIO at Poudre Valley Health System in Fort Collins, Colo. “Branzell is being recognized for his commitment to the growth and success of statewide initiatives to bring together stakeholders across Colorado to further the advancement of health information technology,” the organization said in a press release. Further, in referring to the establishment of the nationwide CIO advocacy communications and coordination body under CHIME’s aegis called StateNet that was established earlier this year, Sharon Canner, CHIME’s senior director of advocacy, added in the same press release that “Russ’ efforts to galvanize his colleagues and his vision of CIOs as key touch points for state-level HITECH implementation have made all the difference in launching StateNet earlier this year.”
Branzell spoke recently with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding the award and his intensive efforts to help organize fellow CIOs to take action around a broad range of policy and strategic imperatives. Below are excerpts from that interview.
Healthcare Informatics: Why do you think you received this prestigious award?
Russell P. Branzell: I think part of this is that we as a CIO community, and the members of CHIME in particular, looked at the landscape in front of us. And one of areas in which many of us saw a void was in active participation both at the state and national levels, on a range of issues, from the ARRA-HITECH stimulus requirements, to the broad need to work together collaboratively. Until recently, our efforts had historically been very siloed, even though our industry is filled with brilliant people—but they are brilliant people who had been working in isolation. In any case, we decided to come together collaboratively as CIOs to create the name StateNet to describe what we were doing.
The concept began with Sharon Canner, who was working with a few others. They came to me because of my work with CHIME and the CHIME board, and said, ‘Russ, we’re just not getting traction here.’ But with some cold calling and pulling favors, within a few days, we had all 50 states and the District of Columbia represented to make sure that state advocacy is occurring and that we have a focal point person who’s a conduit person in each state. I’m the point person for Colorado, and am also the national chair for StateNet; so that was obviously a part of it.
HCI: When was StateNet created, and when did you do the calling?
Branzell: Both took place at the beginning of this year. Meanwhile, we had already launched some statewide activity in Colorado late last year. Around Thanksgiving time, I saw what was going on with the state health information exchange initiative, CORHIO (Colorado Regional Health Information Organization), and noticed the wide range of scattered state activities taking place. But I said, ‘Look, no one is speaking with a unified voice, and therefore, no one is taking the CIOs seriously.’ So it was out of an initial frustration, really, that I just picked up the entire CHIME list for Colorado, and sent out an e-blast list, and said, ‘We’ve got to work together, and could we meet at least once?’ And that resulted in a groundswell of response among CIOs statewide to get together and talk. In fact, I asked the question, ‘When was the last time all the CIOs of Colorado had gotten together to share information and work collaboratively?’ And the answer was, ‘never.’ We wanted to talk about a very broad range of topics—CORHIO, regional extension centers, personal health records, the stimulus, and other issues.
We had a first meeting at the end of December, and realized that this was not a one-meeting proposition. And we said, we need to meet at least quarterly, and then realized we needed to meet monthly. We now meet the first Friday of every month, and if there’s not a huge agenda, we cancel. But CIOs from across the state are involved—not only hospital CIOs, but also CIOs from physician groups, long-term care, for-profit and not-for-profit companies as well. There are only 19 CHIME CIOs in the state, but we have 38 people in our group now. The biggest gathering was about 25, including in-person and web-based and on the phone. So we have this monthly meeting, and the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) supports us logistically, which we didn’t even ask for. We meet at the CHA headquarters office in Denver, they support us, and then we realized that even that was not enough, so the third Thursday of every month, early in the morning, we do a quick teleconference phone call.
HCI: What kinds of issues have been discussed so far?
Branzell: Well, the 800-pound gorilla here is the issue of health information exchange. In fact, we really had no clue what the HIE strategy for the state was; a few were involved with CORHIO, but the vast majority of us had no idea what was going on. So we realized we needed to bring CORHIO into a relationship with us, working in collaboration together. So we’ve developed a relationship with the leaders of CORHIO, and the result is what we call ‘C4’—the Colorado CIO Communication Collaborative.
And to the credit of the folks at CORHIO, they get this. And we’ve partnered with them to really flesh out the HIE initiative, cost structure, sustainability model, etc. And though we’re a collaborative, not a formal, legal entity, we took a formal vote of the group to endorse the CORHIO model; and that gives them a lot more confidence and authority to go forward.
So we’ve got many things on our agenda—working on the stimulus requirements, looking at the regional extension centers issue, CORHIO, many other issues. And we’ve got a lot of really smart CIOs working together, and the net gain is greater than the sum of the parts. And many initiatives like this are taking place all across the country, but Colorado has just been a little bit ahead of other states in this. And we need to work together, because most of us don’t have the ability to work on issues like these all by ourselves.
HCI: Are CIOs across the country realizing the need for working together now?
Branzell: I think we’ll see an exponential growth in collaboration. Until now, we’ve all been so focused on what’s been going on in our own organizations, rightfully so—but now, we’re all realizing that we need to understand things across our own states and even beyond. For example, I need to understand not only what’s going on in Colorado, but even in Nebraska and Kansas, in terms of HIE developments. And when you look nationwide, there are somewhere between 50 and 100 major HIE initiatives nationwide. Who is going to glue all those together? And do we really want 50 to 100 different, very disparate HIE initiatives, or could we establish basic standards and norms? So we’ve developed five or six different working groups within StateNet, and one is on state-to-state HIE issues.
HCI: Clearly, it’s time for CIOs to begin thinking outside the walls of their own institutions, correct?
Branzell: I would say that most progressive CIOs—who are a large segment of the total population—already understand that. But the cards are stacked against them, because they’re asked to be working intensively on something—the stimulus in particular—that hasn’t been fully defined yet, but that will require intensive resources, at a time of resource shortages. And it’s not just CIOs who need to be thinking more broadly these days, it’s all leaders in healthcare organizations.