How a Silicon Valley healthcare CIO balances man and machine

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Crossing the gap to big data

With robots scuttling through hallways to distribute drugs, and robotic-surgery enabling new minimally invasive procedures, El Camino Hospital in late 2009 opened a new $450 million “state-of-the-art” facility in Mountain View, virtually the heart of Silicon Valley. Less than a year later, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise referred to as Obamacare, was signed into law.

Those two events are emblematic of the transformation and disruption roiling the healthcare industry as it deals with an influx of amazing technologies and a forced migration away from traditional “fee for service” quantitative business models toward qualitative pay for performance and integrated care models.

Greg Walton, CIO of El Camino Hospital and a 45-year IT veteran, joined the organization in late 2007, a little over a year after the new facility’s groundbreaking. He says ACA and other mandates, combined with new technology and business pressures, will lead to increased innovation by healthcare organizations. “Innovation is only going to accelerate; I see that on the ground as CIO every day,” he says. “I’ve seen this organization take that in stride and run with it.”

In addition to the latest advancements in medical technology, El Camino’s new facility represented the latest in healthcare IT, including biometric palm scanning patient registration; computer physician order entry (CPOE) and medication bar coding; medical grade bedside computers with "real-time" medical record processing; telemedicine capabilities and wall-to-wall wireless technology.

“The automation we’ve deployed here is working well,” says Walton. “It’s a little older; we’ve refreshed some things, and we’ve continued to deploy what we did in this building to other buildings.” Between Mountain View and a sister campus in Los Gatos, the non-profit organization has a medical staff of 1,300, with 443 licensed beds, and annually experiences more than 18,000 admissions and more than 50,000 emergency room visits.

The industry as a whole is facing disruptive changes as it seeks to complete Stage 2 of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid’s Meaningful Use electronic health records (EHR) incentives program, and El Camino is in the midst of migrating to a new EHR system.

Some worry that rapid consolidation among EHR vendors may stifle innovation, but Walton has an opposite view. Referring to futurist Joel Barker's assertion that innovation at the verge of ecosystems creates new categories of products and services, Walton believes EHR adoption will “become the foundation for innovation that will involve cloud, social, mobile and personalize consumer technology.”

Walton says he’s worked with Silicon Valley venture capital and incubator company that has vetted 1,000 companies in the healthcare sector and is helping to bring to market solutions that “solve problems that EHRs don’t solve.” One such problem, he says, is the burgeoning elderly population most countries are dealing with. That’s spurring innovations ranging from dishes that are easier for the elderly to feed themselves, to devices that will predict or prevent falling, he points out.

“When I started in this field 45 years ago I thought I would be all done by now and at mid-career I’d have to look for something new,” he says. “The degree of knowledge and science has expanded exponentially. We’ve accomplished so much in healthcare sector, but there is so much more to do.”

That sentiment reflects his belief that people are attracted to healthcare IT because they want to work at an organization with a service-to-others mission, rather than one of the multitudes of startup companies in Silicon Valley. That’s why, he says, it’s no harder hiring the right IT skills there than in any other part of the country. “The hottest demand right now is for security skills, and while it took longer than we liked, we hired some good people in that area.”

It’s not likely that those distribution robots traversing the halls or even the robotic surgical systems are going to replace the need for human skills any time soon. “We’re very pleased with the robots, and they continue to serve us well; one of the things about them is they don’t mind working nights and holidays,” he says.

They have supplemented rather than displaced humans and, although there were some initial staff concerns over adverse consequences, the organization didn’t think it would be an issue, and it wasn’t, he says.

In fact, after the Bay Area-based Golden State Warriors won the National Basketball Association championship in mid-June, the next day staffers affixed photos of Warriors team members to each of the robots. “I won’t say they’re like pets, but they are part of the family,” he says.

Greg Walton, a nationally known leader in health information technology with more than 35 years of industry experience, joined El Camino Hospital in late 2007. Before coming to El Camino Hospital, he served as senior vice president and chief information officer at Carilion Health System in Roanoke, Virginia. Mr. Walton has also held management positions at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Cap Gemini, and SMS. His professional accomplishments include serving as the former Executive Advisor to the Commonwealth of Virginia's Task Force for Health Care Information Systems, and serving on the Sub Committee Chair for The Governor's Task Force for Electronic Health Records. 

Pete Bartolik writes regularly about business technology and IT management issues for IDG. He was news editor of the IT management publication, Computerworld, and a reporter for a daily newspaper. He resides in Naples, Florida.