8 Ways to Optimize Your IT Operations

November 11, 2019

Ensuring your IT plan is aligned with the organization’s strategy can be critical to success. Here are eight things to keep in mind.

From the adoption of value-based, consumer-centric care to the arrival of new industry players, such as retailers, change seems constant in the healthcare industry. That’s why it’s more important than ever for organizations to deploy technology wisely to support their business vision and strategy.

The information technology (IT) operation “needs to move from a cost center to more of a value center,” says Subra Sripada, managing director in the healthcare practice at Navigant Consulting. “Simply said, the IT tactical plan needs to align closely with the strategic plan,” he says.

While this is not a new concept, achieving it isn’t easy. So Sripada, former chief information officer and chief transformation officer at Beaumont Health in Southeast Michigan, and other experts share eight recommendations about how to align the work of information technology with the organization’s strategy.  

1. Create a structured governance process

At FHN-a rural health system based in Freeport, Illinois-an information technology governance group composed of C-suite executives meets throughout the year to make sure the IT department’s portfolio of projects supports the organization’s strategy to become a consumer-centric health network. “It really needs to be owned by the IT governance council because the IT department needs the support of senior executives to really get what they need: the resources to get things done,” explains Mark Gridley, president and CEO of FHN, which includes a 100-bed hospital.

Carol Chouinard, vice president of provider technology at Optum Advisory Services, says regular governance meetings provide a venue for C-suite executives to learn about the work of the IT department throughout the year. “Too many CIOs go through this decision-making process, and then they walk away. Then there are these surprises and frustrations the next time they get to the table,” he says.

2. Adopt project management for the entire enterprise

While many healthcare organizations use a project management process within the IT department to vet, manage and track projects, fewer of them have adopted a process that encompasses the entire organization.

But that’s what executives at Albany Medical Center in New York decided to do earlier this year. In March, the academic medical center launched an enterprise program management office. The office coordinates and tracks all initiatives from departments across the organization, such as IT, facilities and clinical service lines, as well as cross-functional projects.  

Projects are completed on a day-to-day perspective at the department level, but the project details from IT and other departments also are fed into the enterprise program management process. “It is completely bi-directional,” says George Hickman, executive vice president, CIO, and chief analytics officer at Albany Medical Center.

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“We can see all the interrelationships.” Hickman continues. “Frankly, it makes the prioritization process transparent and fundamentally clear to all of senior management.” Because many projects compete for the same people and financial resources, centralized project management helps executives balance competing priorities, he notes. 

A team from information technology and finance manages the enterprise program management office. The team reports to a leadership group that oversees Albany Medical Center’s overall strategic plan-an effort the organization calls “Pillars 22,” Hickman says. 

3. Embrace the annual budget process

During the annual budget process, CIOs should help other members of the C-suite decide how to deploy technology to fix business problems. They should also provide their peers with insight about the benefits and risks of each option.

As Gridley explains, “For myself as the CEO, I may have a vision for where I think things need to be, but my IT team is the one that needs to help frame the vision.”  

For example, he says, FHN’s executives wanted to provide telehealth services as an alternative to in-office visits for patients. After evaluating the risks and benefits of developing a telehealth program in-house, FHN decided to contract with MDLive, which manages the virtual technology and remote providers but brands the service as an FHN entity. The new service has been live for several months.

4. Be flexible

“The mature CIOs will always anticipate and be able to manage through changes in the project portfolio. We are in an industry where things change,” Chouinard explains. “The most common is budget pressure and budget priority changes. The second is around M&A activity. The third is leadership changes. New folks come in and they have new priorities.”

For example, he says he worked with a large health system that pulled the plug on a Cerner electronic medical record deployment in one local market because a large, important medical group insisted that the organization’s local hospitals use Epic’s EMR.

5. Manage financial resources

Most IT departments need to improve how they manage budgeting, forecasting and spending revisions for the projects in their portfolios, Chouinard says. Even more important, they need to think about IT spending in a strategic way.  He explains the strategic thought process as, “What is the right level of affordability? How much can we do with the money we have?”

6. Engage staff

Sripada encourages his clients to hold town hall meetings to report back to their staff about the progress the IT department is making to support the organization’s strategic goals. “I’ve always felt that gives a sense of purpose to the IT team,” Sripada says.

Hickman says members of the data analytics team are assigned to Albany Medical Center’s process-improvement projects, so they become familiar with the organization’s corporate strategy through their day-to-day work.

Beyond that, Hickman says he includes an agenda item on Albany Medical Center’s strategy at IT department meetings. He also encourages information-sharing at meetings. “I try to create venues-whether I am there or not-where we go around the table and talk about what we are working on, and the approaches we are taking,” he says.

7. Align the IT project portfolio to the corporate culture.

Organizations have different appetites for the amount of risk they are willing to take on and the rate of change they are comfortable managing. CIOs should fully understand those cultural dynamics before embarking on large initiatives or changing the mix of existing projects, Sripada advises.

“Just because there are technologies available to solve a business problem doesn’t mean the organization is ready to adopt it and benefit from it,” he says.

During his last four years at Beaumont Health, Sripada oversaw the day-to-day activities involved in merging three health systems into one-a process that subjected employees to a rapid pace of change. In hindsight, “we are glad we did it the way we did it,” he says, while also saying that it was a challenging process. “There were a lot of balls that were in the air.”

8. Keep an eye of the future state

The IT team needs to keep abreast of new technologies that could help the corporate organization reach its strategic goals, such as third-party apps for consumers. The department also needs to plan for changes to the underlying infrastructure, such as the electronic medical record, to support future IT investments.  

“It is so easy to get lost in the 400 requests that we get, and we have to manage on a regular basis,” Chouinard says. “There is a risk that we will lose sight of what the bigger picture is.”

Linda Wilson is an experienced writer and editor specializing in the healthcare industry.

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