IT execs tackle to-do lists

Sutter Health put off a major IT initiative for years because it was daunted by the project’s complexity. Now, the nonprofit health care organization is going forward with its plans to integrate patient data scattered across dozens of different systems.

The right technology became available, and what seemed undoable is getting done, says John Hummel, CIO at the Sacramento, Calif., company.

“It sounds simplistic enough, the idea of centralizing patient data,” Hummel says. “But it’s extremely difficult to get all the disparate pieces of information together and have them make sense.”

Adding to the challenge is that Sutter maintains more than 100 different databases; records pertaining to any one patient might be in 50 per cent to 60 per cent of them, Hummel says. “There is huge, pent-up demand for a reasonable way to do (enterprise master patient index). It’s a big, hairy deal.”

Sutter wanted to create a master patient index as early as 1999 but put off the effort because of the high cost. Other health care organizations have paid up to US$1 million per hospital to retrofit patient systems to a new master record schema, Hummel says. Sutter was determined to avoid going that complex route.

The company found an alternative in Initiate Systems Inc.’s Identity Hub software. Because the product links data from disparate systems without requiring changes to existing records, Sutter says the project costs are significantly less than they would be with other options. He estimates that it will cost about US$4 million, or US$1 per patient.

Last year Sutter began rolling out the Initiate software to three of its 30 hospitals. By 2006, Hummel expects to have expanded the implementation across nearly all the Sutter Health network.

More stalled IT projects are getting done these days, analysts say. One reason is the improving economy.

In its most recent TechStrat Survey, published in late February, Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. found CIOs are more optimistic than they’ve been in years. Among respondents, 73 per cent say their business is getting better — the highest percentage since 2001, according to the firm.

As a result, 38 per cent of respondents say their CFO is loosening the purse strings. Roughly one-third are spending more on IT because they haven’t bought much for three years, Merrill Lynch says. The availability of affordable technologies also is spurring investment, users say.

For Mother Jones, a content management system was on the “impossible list” until the nonprofit media company found a suitable product with a reasonable price tag, says Ed Homich, product manager at the San Francisco company. With a new hosted content management system from software maker Atomz, the IT team can make site-wide changes in a matter of minutes. Before, it took more than a month to make a universal change to all site content because Mother Jones had many different — and disconnected — content sources, he says.

Additionally, the Atomz software doubles the available space on Mother Jones’ Web pages for sponsorships and advertising — a feature that helps further justify the product rollout, Homich says.

Mother Jones declined to say how much it is paying for its new content management system, though Atomz says typical pricing for application access and technical support ranges between US$50,000 and US$150,000 per year.

Spending to boost service

AMR Research Inc. found 66 per cent of IT executives polled in January are increasing their IT budgets in 2004, compared with only 47 per cent in a poll conducted last fall. Among respondents, 48 per cent say that customer-driven issues will have the greatest influence on IT investments over the next year.

Mills & Reeve agrees — the British law firm is going ahead now with a CRM project that it has mulled over for years. But in this case money was less of an obstacle than mindset, says Duncan Ogilvy, knowledge management partner at the firm’s Cambridge office.

The firm knew it needed software to help manage its client information. When Mills & Reeve was founded, it was small enough that the partners could get together once a week and share information about clients, project status and legal news, Ogilvy says. Now that the 250-lawyer firm maintains offices in four cities and lawyers tend to specialize more, it’s hard to keep partners abreast of what’s going on across the firm’s core practice groups.

Client information sits in four major repositories, and the firm has been inefficient about tying together those systems, Ogilvy says. That has led to errors — sending correspondence to an ex-client, for example.

In addition, the firm has not been systematic in the way it approaches new business or takes advantage of cross-selling opportunities. “We’ve failed to learn as an organization what we know as individuals,” he says.

CRM software offered a way to keep Mills & Reeve’s client information organized — from the mundane, such as contact information, to the strategic, such as who in the firm has a relationship with a client. But until the firm committed to using the software and took steps to clean up its data, the CRM project team wouldn’t give the go-ahead, Ogilvy says.

“The test was our willingness to get ourselves into shape,” Ogilvy says. Having secured senior-level commitment to the project, Mills & Reeve chose CRM software from Interface Software Inc. at the end of last year and is designing a pilot project. He says he expects the project to cost about US$720,000, “which is significant for a firm of our size.” Most of the cost is associated with the time the firm will spend inputting data and maintaining the system, not with license fees.

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