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From CIO to CEO

May 30, 2013
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Yousuf Ahmad takes the reins at Cincinnati-based Mercy Health after serving as ‘chief transformation officer’
Mercy Health's Yousuf Ahmad

Not many healthcare CIOs make the jump to the CEO position. But Yousuf Ahmad was no ordinary CIO. Ahmad, 39, was recently named market president and CEO of Cincinnati-based Mercy Health, which operated six hospitals, a physicians group and other properties. (Mercy Health is part of the Central Market of Catholic Health Partners, its parent company.)

Ahmad has quite a list of accomplishments for someone who hasn’t turned 40. He attended the University of London on a cricket scholarship and graduated at age 19. He was a CIO with Mercy by the time he was 30, and is now a CEO at 39. There is a saying in Farsi, he says, that wisdom is tied to knowledge, not age.

This week I had the chance to chat with Ahmad about how his five-year tenure as CIO might shape his thinking as CEO. First, he reminded me that there was another step in between those two posts. For the past few years he has served as “chief transformation officer” at Mercy. In that role, he worked on clinical integration — creating strong links between all the aspects of Mercy’s network of care, including cardiology, orthopedics, hospitals, and physician practices.

Mercy is operating Mercy Health Select, the only accountable care organization (ACO) in southwest Ohio and Ahmad has been serving as its president.

From 2004 to 2009, he was CIO and president of a medical group. “During that phase, we did a complete infusion of technology with more than $100 million in investments. The EMR is just one small aspect,” he says. “We did a whole slew of things: digital radiology, bar code medication administration, surgical information system, pharmacy information system. It was all done with an eye on what technology can do to improve care.” He believes one of the keys to successful technology implementation is to engage people early in the game, so they know what to expect from day one. 

I asked him if there were skills he learned as CIO that will help him in his new position. “Absolutely,” he said. “CIOs are used to being change agents in their organizations. I have found that to be true here and will seek to continue to be a change agent.” Project management skills he learned as CIO will be helpful. CIOs have to synthesize a lot of data to help with succinct decision-making, he added. “Some health leaders don’t know where to go in their system to look for data,” he said. “I am fearless in seeking it out.”

But Ahmad cautioned that other CIOs who may be interested in this career path have to think about how to prepare themselves by really understanding the industry as a whole and not just from a technology viewpoint. “I have a doctorate in public health and a master’s degree in health administration,” he said. “I think that there is a lot you have to do to convince a board of directors that you are well-rounded enough to take on this position.”

I also asked if he would keep a close eye on technology developments in the industry. “I will continue to watch how we can go above and beyond the basics of EHR implementation with mobile health, telehealth and clinical research,” he said. “We have put the infrastructure in place to measure outcomes. Population health is a key focus. We have an enterprise data warehouse in place and the next phase is just getting it populated so that we can look at longitudinal records of care and better understand patients’ needs and how we can best deploy our resources.”

In an interesting personal side-note, I had read in a Cincinnati daily newspaper article that Ahmad played competitive Scrabble with the North American Scrabble Players Association and was ranked among the world’s top 400 players. Because English was not his first language, he took up Scrabble to help with his vocabulary. I asked him if he had any tips for amateur Scrabble players. “Know your two- and three-letter words,” he said. Even with a bad rack of tiles, a great player can still win, he added. “The rack of letters is only 30 percent of the equation. The rest is skill.”

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