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Aaron Bours
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The 8 Must-Haves for Successful Chief Medical Information Officers (CMIOs), Next Gen Leaders in Healthcare

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of developing healthcare technology is that the space is seemingly infinite. As soon as one technology is invented, it opens the door for something new and even more other-worldly to appear. The more invested we become in the world of technology, the more the future feels like it's arrived, revealing itself at lightning speed.

The 2020s is an exciting time for medicine because, with the help of AI, advanced robotics, and other nascent technologies, some incredible innovations are expected to become available and perhaps even widespread within the next decade. We're talking drone-delivered medical supplies, pocket ultrasound devices, mind-reading wristbands, and more. And of course, some cutting-edge technologies, like advanced conversational AI, are already here, transforming the healthcare industry and improving patient lives.

No discussion about the marriage of medicine and technology would be complete without addressing Chief Medical Information Officers (CMIOs). CMIOs are at the forefront of technological innovation within healthcare organizations, and the work they do has very real and measurable benefits. But what makes a great CMIO? And what characteristics do these next-generation healthcare leaders possess? Let's get into it.

An Evolving Role in a Technologically Advancing World - CMIOs As Pioneers

A landmark 2006 study gave a detailed snapshot of the CMIO role in the early 2000s. While 2006 might seem like a lifetime ago today, especially with how quickly technology advances, the early 2000s were a critical time in the healthcare industry. For example, at the time of the study, it was estimated that less than 5% of United States hospitals had implemented Computerized Physician Order Entry (CPOE). CPOE is the electronic entry of medical practitioner instructions. Another way to think of CPOE is any electronic system that allows healthcare providers to request drugs, tests, lab studies, and more.

The early 2000s saw a significant push towards CPOE, electronic health records (EHR), and the increased computerization of healthcare processes. With good reason - medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the U.S. By implementing CPOE, healthcare organizations could reduce errors and improve patient safety, improve efficiency, and improve insurance reimbursements.

However, many healthcare providers were slow to implement this technology. In fact, a 2016 article published in the peer-review medical journal the bmj stated, "U.S. healthcare is the last major American industry to have its information infrastructure become electronic and digital."

But why the sluggishness? It's clear that the desire for increased technological innovation was there. In fact, it wasn't just healthcare organizations and the professionals who inhabited them who were pushing for this change. By 2009, the U.S. federal government was stepping in too, even offering a $19.2 billion incentive.

Despite the desire for change, CMIOs encountered challenges along the way. For example, risk aversion is common in the healthcare industry for obvious reasons; a software failure can be catastrophic, leading to much worse outcomes than in a typical workplace. Likewise, unfriendly user interfaces or faulty EHRs can cause treatment delays. And, of course, regulatory and data compliance is a significant challenge that can't be overlooked.

The challenge for CMIOs during this period was to see the risks but push forward, leading healthcare organizations safely into a world where technology could reduce errors, improve patient outcomes, and increase efficiencies inside the organization.

8 Characteristics of Successful Chief Medical Information Officers (CMIOs)

1.   Clinical Experience

The 2006 study titled The CMIO—A New Leader for Health Systems details the prior professional experience and skills of CMIOs involved in the study. While this study is now 15 years old and the CMIO role has undoubtedly changed during this time, prior professional experience is one area where the role has remained almost identical. The primary way the role has changed is more to do with the shift from a purely technical position to one that's more grounded in strategy. However, specific professional skills have to be present to be an expert on technological strategy within a healthcare setting. So, what are they?

Most CMIOs involved in the study were board-certified physicians within their medical specialty, and many had received academic honors in medical school. That's not to say that aspiring CMIOs should check out of the race if they don't have honors, but rather that a passion for medicine and a strong work ethic is paramount.

When it comes to experience, a CMIO in 2021 is typically a practicing physician with a strong understanding of IT. Typically is the keyword here. Is it possible to become a CMIO without being a practicing physician? Yes, however, almost all successful CMIOs were practicing physicians at one time, even if they're not currently practicing.

Entrusting someone with the technological vision of a healthcare organization is a huge responsibility that carries a lot of weight. The decision-makers in charge of hiring a CMIO want to know that the person sitting in front of them has a thorough understanding of patient needs and the real-world impact technology has on those patients.

2.   Expert Communicator

It should come as no surprise that technology, and particularly new technology, can be complex and confusing. Navigating the complex minefield of new tech can be a challenge even for seasoned IT personnel, but it can be like speaking a different language for people in other departments.

Discussing things like relational databases, neural networks, conversational AI, machine learning, etc., comes with specific communication barriers. And to overcome these barriers, the CMIO must be an expert communicator. They must be able to simplify technical subjects while still staying true to how the technology works, its advantages, and disadvantages. It's a careful balance that not everyone is capable of achieving. For example, if you dumb something down too much, you risk disconnecting it from reality but get too technical, and you might as well be explaining quantum physics to a 13th-century peasant.

CMIOs must also be able to communicate at the executive level, tailoring their conversations to the primary concerns of the C-Suite. Executives tend to see an organization with a very 'big picture' view, so the CMIO can't get too bogged down in the low-level detail of systems.

3.   Leadership Skills

The CMIOs studied as part of the 2006 research paper all had general executive leadership experience, including leading on a variety of transformation projects. Fast forward to 2021, and leadership experience is still an absolute must for all successful CMIOs.

But what about leadership skills? Without the correct mix of leadership skills, aspiring CMIOs can't climb the ladder and eventually become Chief Medical Information Officer.

 

●  Goal setting and planning - CMIOs are in charge of leading the technological vision of the healthcare organization. This means setting achievable and measurable goals and putting in place a plan to achieve them.

●  Dependability - As the captain of the ship, the CMIO must be dependable both to executives and lower-ranking colleagues. The leaders of the healthcare organization must trust the CMIO to complete critical tasks, take the lead when necessary, and evaluate all strategic options.

●  Integrity - Integrity is about being honest and sticking to your morals no matter what is thrown your way. CMIO is a high-pressure job, and this is more true than ever in 2021. Successful CMIOs hold themselves accountable for goals, actions, and mistakes.

●  Decisiveness - Successful leaders transparently understand the options and consequences of the decisions available and can make high-quality decisions even under immense pressure.

●  Team building - The 2021 model of CMIOs is about working in teams, collaborating with people from a wide array of disciplines to achieve the best outcome.

●  Motivation - Successful CMIOs must be excited about new technological advancements and be able to motivate others about them too.

●  Conflict management - As we discussed above, technology is a complex subject, and disagreements about the right solution are bound to arise. Successful CMIOs must be able to mediate discussions between parties and move the conversation in a positive direction.

4.   Creativity

While successful CMIOs need a high level of technical skills, these need to be matched equally with creative skills. Creativity is about thinking outside the box and seeking solutions that can improve the healthcare organization in some way, even if the answer isn't immediately obvious.

Another critical aspect of creativity is the ability to think about a situation deeply. This means analyzing the root causes of a problem, seeing a situation from all perspectives, and knowing how to conduct thorough research to complete the picture.

How do we know that successful CMIOs are also creatives? Because scientific studies have shown that the more narrow our perspective, the less creative we are. An example of this is tasks where people are given a financial incentive for completing a creative task in the shortest amount of time (beating out their opponents). It turns out that with the pull of the incentive always in the back of our minds, we narrow our focus too much and struggle to innovate.

Looking at CMIOs, the role demands a creative and open way of looking at the world. However, a narrow focus is unlikely to yield the best results for the healthcare organization.


5.
  A Customer Service Mindset

Put simply, CMIOs leverage technology to improve patient care and the healthcare organization as a whole. However, while technology is meant to make things better, sometimes it can make things worse. For example, a poor implementation, faulty server, or software failure can lead to unhappy employees who struggle to do their jobs effectively.

To manage the potential downsides of implementing new technology, CMIOs must have a customer service mindset. This means being on hand to help people, provide allyship, and offer solutions and maybe even compensation when things go wrong.

6.   Engaging With the Right Clinical Representatives

CMIOs must have a keen awareness of how potential new technologies will impact workers on all levels of the medical side of the business, from the frontline to lab-based roles and everything in between. A vital element of this process is finding the right physician "champions" and clinical representatives.

Typically, this means having regular meetings with medical professionals from a wide range of disciplines, for example, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, IT personnel, quality management, and so on.

7.   An Excellent Working Relationship With the CIO

The CMIO essentially serves as a bridge between the medical departments and the IT departments. Often, the CMIO will report to the Chief Information Officer (CIO), but this isn't the case in every healthcare organization. For example, the CMIO will report directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in some organizations.

However, the CMIO and the CIO need to have a strong working relationship regardless of the internal organizational structure. A recent survey that asked CIOs and CMIOs to answer questions relating to their roles found some interesting results. First, an eye-watering 95% of CIO respondents said that CMIOs have helped them achieve their objectives. Second, and more critically, a whopping 66% of CIOs said they couldn't have accomplished their objectives within the desired timeline without a CMIO.

The message here is clear - healthcare organizations function best when CIOs and CMIOs work together. Therefore, a robust and close working relationship with the CIO is something all CMIOs must aspire to.

8.   Informal Networks

Successful CMIOs use informal channels to influence health system projects and health system leadership. This means they engage in networking regularly and have done at all levels of their career. In other words, relationships are critical to success as a CMIO. You never know who you might need to convince to get a project off the ground. As a result, having a way to contact these people and relate to them on their level is paramount.

Summary

Successful CMIOs aren't created by accident. Being at the top of your field and making critical strategic technological healthcare decisions requires the perfect mix of skills and experience, and these aren't things you can conjure up overnight. Both aspiring and currently embedded CMIOs should familiarize themselves with the eight characteristics on this list to become the leader that their healthcare organization needs in 2021 and beyond.

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Aaron Bours
October 13, 2021
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