Peter Bak, CIO Humber River Hospital
Peter Bak, CIO Humber River Hospital

Peter Bak takes the lead as Humber River Hospital opens as the first fully digital hospital in North America

In October 2015, the new Humber River Hospital opened its doors and became the first fully digital hospital in North America, a feat accomplished by a team that included Peter Bak, the CIO at Humber River Hospital.

Bak first started on the project as a consultant. He has worked in healthcare software development, product commercialization, consulting, and executive leadership for 25 years. The project got approval in 2010, and would include a new facility, as well as the digital components.  

The larger project consisted of several smaller digital projects, including robots that mixed drugs and transported goods, machines that process blood samples, and electronic medical charts. And every bed is equipped with a touchscreen so patients can access their charts, make calls, and adjust the temperature in their room.

Less sneaker time for nurses

The project achieved a number of results. First, Bak says there are increased efficiencies. Nurses, for example, spend less time on administrative tasks and “sneaker time” or running around. Instead they spend more time at the bedside with patients. “So they are still walking but they aren’t walking to do unproductive things,” he says.

Bak says there’s also been an increase in communication and collaboration in the hospital, which he says can be a challenge for many healthcare settings. Nurses and doctors change shifts, and communication breaks down when decisions need to be made collaboratively and on time. Bak says the team now uses pagers and phones to keep connected. Tools such as instant messaging with staff and video chats between patients and doctors were added.

Collaboration efforts enhanced

“That sets you up to connect and get the right parties at the table immediately,” Bak says. “That happens in the consumer world. Well, apply it to the healthcare world and now you’ve got far, far more collaboration going on in an episode of care.”

Bak says the health practitioners adapted to the new systems quite quickly. “What we found was certain key parts of the technology became almost instantly irreplaceable,” he says. “So, when we turned them off and were tuning things, frontline staff they would get really upset. That’s fantastic because that’s telling you they are becoming dependent on that piece of technology, and it’s therefore adding value. And it’s working, otherwise they wouldn’t care less if I turned it off. That was the most pleasant surprise and I hadn’t really expected that.”

Two years into the project, Bak was hired as CIO at Humber River. He says championing the project gave him insight on what characteristics CIOs of healthcare institutions need to have. Strong technical skills are the first.

“I’ve seen so often in hospitals that CIOs are combined with the CFO role,” he says. “And so really, they are not technical people at all. They rely on directors and managers to run the technology. You need to have people who are really caught up in understanding of what’s going on in the world of IT and how to apply it.”

He says healthcare CIOs also need to build confidence in their leadership. “It’s true of any leader,” he says. “In IT, the CIO needs to build that level of respective confidence because you’re going to introduce so much change, that if you have to fight that change all the time, it’s going to be hard.”

Bak advises CIOs at other healthcare institutions looking to take on a similar digital project to align their leadership, including the executive and the board of directors, with the larger vision. “If you’re going to do a major IT initiative like we’ve done here, it has to start with complete buy-in from that level. Without that buy in, don’t even start.”

But he also advises teams have a clear picture of what the vision is, as well as a strong technical team. “You need people that understand the technology, the people who will implement it, and run it,” he says.

Now, six years later, the hospital is up and running, but Bak says the technology changes will continue to evolve. For example, the team is working on patient flow logistics, that is how to get patients admitted, treated, and out the door in an average length of stay, if not better. “This isn’t about hurrying them through and reducing the quality of care,” Bak says. “But there are many inefficiencies you see that create delays and lock up your bed necessarily.”

Bak says the team was quiet about its plans while the digital project was underway. But now they gladly share the details of how they completed the project on time and on budget.

“We made a concerted effort to speak at conferences and things and people keep asking how we did it for that amount,” Bak says. “We keep saying, ‘You can do the same.’ That’s the message we are getting across, and I think that’s cool.