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January 10, 2011
by Mark Hagland
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Interview: Charles E. Christian, CIO, Good Samaritan Hospital

On Jan. 4, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) and the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) announced that their organizations had named Charles (Chuck) E. Christian, CIO of Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes, Ind., the John E. Gall, Jr. CIO of the Year. The award recognizes “healthcare IT executives who have made significant contributions to their organization and demonstrated innovative leadership through effective use of technology,” according to CHIME and HIMSS. It is named in honor of the late John E. Gall, Jr., who pioneered implementation of the first fully integrated medical information system in the world, at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., in the 1960s. Chuck Christian, who is in his 22nd year as CIO at the 232-bed Good Samaritan, will formally receive the award at the HIMSS Conference in Orlando on Feb. 22.

In a statement upon receiving the award, Christian said, “I’m very humbled to be mentioned with the industry leaders who have received the John E. Gall Award over the years. I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from a large group of outstanding professionals.”

Among numerous other distinctions during his career to date, Christian has served on the CHIME board of trustees and is a past chair of the HIMSS board of directors. He is currently serving on the Indiana Health Informatics Corporation board of directors by appointment of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. He has received numerous industry awards in the past, and is well-known among national CIO leaders.

Christian spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland last week regarding his receiving the award, and his perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing CIOs in today’s landscape.

Healthcare Informatics: What does this honor mean for you and for what you’ve been doing in the field?

Charles E. Christian: For me, it’s a recognition by my peers that they recognize the efforts I’ve made and that others have made.

HCI: For those just up and coming in their careers, what goes into being a recognized CIO leader in the industry?

Christian: I think it’s more about being a servant, and about participating. And while I’ve been fortunate to participate in many ways, I’ve always gotten more out of it than I’ve put into it. I had the honor of introducing Dennis Quaid at the HIMSS Conference in Chicago. And I actually spent about an hour talking with Dennis privately. And he’s a great guy, very personable. And I’ve been able to travel to Europe to present over there. So it’s through that participation that I’ve been privileged to do these things; and I’ve just made an outstanding group of friends in the industry, people who are truly captains of our industry.

HCI: What kinds of leadership will CIOs need to show in the next few years?

Christian: Many of us are already deeply involved in “CIO 2.0”—we’re more strategic than technical. I started out as an x-ray tech, and I’m married to a critical care nurse. So patient care is front and center for me. So it’s really about looking at the strategies to improve care, and to improve referral patterns—because at the end of the day, it’s about how we can create the best possible patient experience, and the best possible outcomes for patients. I think of myself as an internal consultant—I get called on in numerous discussions to help the organization move forward in a number of ways—and those discussions may not even be related to technology. For example, at our hospital, we have a customer excellence steering committee, looking at all aspects—we’ve got the director of cardiology, director of public relations, director of respiratory care, myself—we’re really looking at creating the best possible experience of care, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with technology.

HCI: When you look at the last two decades, what developments have been most surprising?

Christian: I did a presentation to a group of IT professionals at the local university—they were getting ready to graduate. And the focus was on careers and job availabilities. And I walked in and put down my iPhone and iPad, and I said, with technology, I’ve been able to leverage every free moment I have. And I told them, the pace of change has simply accelerated so much; and I don’t see that pace slowing down at all. And when you have the President of the United States mentioning healthcare IT in every breath, and Congress putting money out here and there to support it—those of us involved in the field really have to put our money where our mouths are. Keep in mind that, 21 years ago when I walked into this place, they had two PCs and everyone else was using Selectric typewriters. And we had more empty space than anything in the data center. But we’re finding more and more opportunities to use technology.

HCI: Where are you generally on the pessimism/optimism scale?

Christian: I’m cautiously optimistic. And I think the intent of ARRA-HITECH is worth doing; the thing I want us to be careful about is that we’re focusing on the right areas. Just because you have an EMR in place and it’s certified doesn’t mean you know how to use it. It’s like the joke about the lumberjacks who bought a chainsaw and they couldn’t get it to work and returned it to the store, and found that they didn’t know how to crank the chainsaw; they were using it like a regular saw.

HCI: A lot of CIOs and other healthcare IT leaders are feeling somewhat overwhelmed right now by all the demands they’re facing.

Christian: Oh, absolutely! Look at the rate of change; look at what’s going on with HITECH. And some recent surveys have found that some CIOs aren’t going to make it. And there’s insecurity in understanding what needs to be done. Look at the shift to the 5010 form and then ICD-10; and then we’ve got this thing called healthcare reform. And we don’t necessarily know what is really going to happen. So there’s some apprehension related to what this will all mean. And hospital administrations are concerned about reimbursement; and you’ve got physicians who say they’re tired of beating their heads against the wall and just want to be hired by hospitals. And my current CEO, who was a CFO years ago—years ago, I said to him, I think healthcare will look more like the clinic models like Kaiser and Mayo. And he said, well, I don’t know. But in fact, that is what we’re seeing. And our hospital has acquired, at the request of physicians, a significant number of physician practices. And there are some economies of scale we can achieve; and we’ve standardized purchasing, for example.

HCI: What would your advice be for other CIOs right now?

Christian: If they don’t have good lines of communication and sources of organization, they need to reach out to their associations. For example, Sharon Canner at CHIME is great—she sent out a list of things you should be worrying about, and she gave us a map. And there are a bunch of smart people who are tearing these issues apart and figuring out where the warts are truly growing. And just keeping up with your professional network—and looking at the industry, and reading the publications. You’ve got to have those streams of information coming at you. Sometimes, it gets to be too much, and so you have to make sure you’re pursuing quality lines of information. But I said a few years ago, when we get to this point, those who can’t perform well will be looking at other industries or careers. And some are retiring—my age and older. I’m 57.

HCI: I think it speaks to CHIME’s credit that they chose a real rolled-up-sleeves, in-the-trenches CIO like yourself to honor.

Christian: I’m really honored and humbled by this. I wrote to Bill Spooner [William A. Spooner, senior vice president and CIO at the San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare], and e-mailed him and said, ‘I’m not sure they got the right guy.’ And he said, ‘just sit back and enjoy it a bit!’


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