The unhealthy state of CIO influence in Canadian health care

While many CIOs are redefining their roles, those in healthcare face budgetary and regulatory issues that make it even tougher for them to adopt both that new role and emerging technologies.

At a CanadianCIO roundtable held in Toronto, healthcare CIOs gathered to hear sponsor Red Hat Canada talk about the flexibility and security open source can offer their industry. But the discussion also turned to the unique challenges they face in their sector.

“Healthcare (IT) is about five years behind other IT. It’s slow, it’s bureaucratic and there hasn’t been a lot of change in healthcare (IT) except in the last three or four years, it’s started to explode,” said Craig Klein, director of Red Hat’s North American healthcare division.

Faced with “an explosion of unstructured data and what to do with it,” many healthcare CIOs are now struggling to catch up with management and technology trends in other sectors, Klein said. As one guest told the roundtable, this situation has created an outmoded view of the CIO within healthcare.

“(Healthcare) CIOs are not seen as innovators or strategists. They’re seen as IT guys,” said the participant, who is the CIO of a provincially funded regional healthcare authority. (To encourage a frank and open discussion of the challenges faced by IT executives at this and future roundtables, CanadianCIO is honoring the request of some guests to remain anonymous in this story.)

That outdated perception of the CIO contrasts sharply with Gartner Inc. research showing today’s CIOs are gaining more C-suite influence. Gartner’s 2015 global CIO survey shows 41 per cent of CIOs are now reporting directly to their CEOs. In an accompanying report, Gartner said that’s one of the highest levels in the survey’s history.

“(It’s) a result of the digital narrative gaining prominence in the boardroom and on the executive committee. Even stronger evidence of opportunity for CIOs is the fact that the survey reveals that CEOs expect them to lead the digital charge during this critical transition period,” Gartner stated in the report.

In the same way many industries are using IT to become more customer-centric, healthcare is striving to be more patient-focused, Klein told the CIO roundtable. But one guest said that’s another area where healthcare IT lags behind.

“I believe our healthcare system here in Canada doesn’t look at the patient at the centre. We look at optimizing our own silo but not designing the system around the patient,” he said.

Getting various silos to work together – such as back end administrators and frontline healthcare workers – makes IT change difficult in the health sector, said one guest.

“We’re really undergoing a major business transformation. But frontline service delivery people don’t understand documenting your process or end-to-end processes,” said the guest, IT director for a national health-based charity.

Roundtable guests also said many common IT issues are exacerbated within healthcare, such as legacy systems, data security concerns, privacy regulations and cost containment.

Cost concerns will continue to put pressure on CIOs in many sectors during 2015. Gartner expects the average IT budget to grow by just one per cent this year. Gartner also estimates that 38 per cent of total IT spending now takes place outside the IT budget, a number it predicts will surpass 50 per cent by 2017.

Time is another shrinking commodity for CIOs. Gartner’s report suggests that in order to lead digital transformation within their organizations, CIOs should spend less time “running the IT shop” and more time engaging internal leadership and external customers. Yet compared with the CIOs in its 2011 survey, Gartner found today’s CIOs actually spend five per cent more time ‘keeping the lights on.’

This shortage of time and financial resources is putting the squeeze on many CIOs. According to one roundtable guest, combining those pressures with regulatory concerns creates a healthcare culture that tells CIOs, “You can’t do that!”

“You can’t believe how many barriers there are internally,” she said. “How do we change the paradigm to make it easy to do (IT) adoption?”

A fellow guest said he tackles those barriers by collecting and analyzing data so outcomes can be measured. Red Hat’s Klein, a 35-year veteran of healthcare IT, said other CIOs in the health sector are connecting the fragmented pieces of their systems through interoperability. He also noted that many are deploying IT that’s as flexible as possible to keep up with the rapid pace of technology change.

The biggest shift, he added, is that healthcare CIOs must emphasize business solutions, not just cost savings, when selling today’s CEOs on new technology.

“What’s the problem they’re looking to solve and what’s the technology to get them there?” Klein said.

The CEO of a cloud-based healthcare software firm summed it up for the rest of the room.

“The problem with making the leap to IT transformation isn’t really technology. It’s about how we think and do we really understand what’s driving stakeholders.”

photo credit: Intergenerational Wellness Centre Hallway via photopin (license)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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