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Healthcare CIO Marc Probst on embracing change

Intermountain Healthcare CIO Marc Probst, the 2019 CHIME-HIMSS John E. Gall Jr. CIO of the Year, provided a simple piece of advice to health IT leaders: Pay attention.

Change is the new norm for healthcare, and navigating that change can be both a challenge and an opportunity for healthcare CIOs.  

Marc Probst, vice president and CIO at Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare since 2003, said the single best piece of advice he had for CIOs today: Pay attention to all of it -- from the technology trends to the security threats -- and find a way to play a strategic role in the organization. Probst was recently named the 2019 College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society John E. Gall Jr. CIO of the Year, which recognizes exceptional leadership in the healthcare field.

In this Q&A, Probst, who plans to retire from his post in July, talks about pending changes with proposed interoperability rules and the growing involvement of tech giants like Apple and Microsoft.

What trends, technologies and topics are important to you in health IT today?

Marc ProbstMarc Probst

Marc Probst: The most important things I focus on right now are cost reduction for the services and tools and the things we provide at the organization. We don't survive as an industry or as a provider if we can't get our costs reduced for our patients and members. That is a huge area of focus. There are tools, technologies, organizations that outsource, all these things we need to pay attention to that we need to bring into the organization -- not completely disrupt the organization -- but absolutely continue to focus on cost and the way we deliver.

Security is the second area of focus. We've got a CISO, he's one of the best CISOs I think in the country in healthcare. That [role] reports to me and is something I have to stay abreast of.

Cool new technologies -- AI is coming into its own and … it's going to be really important in healthcare, so I do pay attention to that. And I think customer relationship management is a space that's been underserved in healthcare and one that I think as CIOs we need to pay attention to.

Greater patient access to data is a big topic today, and we're seeing pushback from EHR vendor Epic and other health systems on proposed interoperability rules from federal regulators that would facilitate better data access. Do you think these rules should move forward?

Probst: We need to allow data to move. If we want AI to work, we need data to run that AI. If we want to provide better care with our solutions, we need to have that data so our clinicians have it in hand and our patients have it. If we want consumers to [engage], they need data to manage their own health and healthcare. I think we need to expedite getting these rules done and the information flowing. With that said, we do have to pay attention to privacy. I don't want my medical records just open and easily accessed by others. And we're seeing the bad guys, they're all over the place trying to get to this data. But I think we should err on the side of expediency in getting this out. I think there are a lot of pieces in place that can help assure privacy.

What role will the CIO play in balancing patient privacy with data access?

Probst: It's going to be exactly what it is today. We have to focus on privacy and security -- it's changing and it's an area we need to continue to invest in. And we will. I think there's a huge education piece [for] our consumers, if they're going to take their data and they're going to share their data and use it in apps we don't control. Once it's out of our hands and in theirs, it's now their responsibility to secure it, and we need to [help] them understand what they're doing and what could happen to their data. So I think our role stays the same, we've got to stay the course, but we do need some help from the feds to allow this data to be shared and to help our consumers get that data.

What about tech giants moving into the industry, like Amazon piloting healthcare projects and EHR vendor Meditech partnering with Google Cloud Platform? What will be their impact on healthcare?

Probst: They are a huge threat to our current EHR infrastructure within the industry. They're far more flexible in their ability to develop applications. They're so aligned with consumers of all types -- clinicians, patients and members. They're aligned with these people and understand the kind of apps that are going to be useful to them. I could see, pretty easily, an environment where our large vendors are just transactional engines at the back end that little by little erode away. They're going to be replaced by systems and applications built on these big platforms from Google, Amazon, Microsoft. I think that's highly likely to occur, and it will change our environment a lot. It will also lower our costs a lot. I think that's going to be really exciting to see.

Is patient privacy going to factor into how health systems and CIOs work with tech giants?

Probst: We're going to have to be aware of it. They're learning and understanding what these requirements are. But how many hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars, can Google put against securing data compared to what I can do with a $350 million budget? When they understand it, they have the resources to do a far better job than anyone, frankly. Getting to security and privacy, our role as CIO -- our role as consumers -- needs to insist that they do that.

What advice do you have for healthcare CIOs today as they navigate these changes?

Probst: Pay attention. It's changing. I would be really focused on honing my technical skills and my ability to manage people and the operation of IT. That's what our organizations are going to demand of us. They're going to take on more of the strategy and where we want to go with systems, but they need people who can absolutely manage it, move it forward, keep the data safe.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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