Regional Health Takes Leap from Data to Performance with New Role

By Zach Donisch, Director of Membership, AEHIA

When you drive northeast into Rapid City, South Dakota, you pass two tremendous sculptures chiseled into the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The heads of former presidents loom over the valley below, while the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial depicts a Lakota warrior on a horse, pointing out across the landscape.

When the Crazy Horse Memorial will be finished is the big question – construction on the memorial has plodded along for over 70 years. The future of healthcare IT is like this massive mountain sculpture; a finished product begins to emerge only after years of chipping away at the rock face. At nearby Regional Health in Rapid City, former Vice President of Data Analytics Nicole Kerkenbush takes on a new role as one of healthcare IT’s sculptors of the future.

Nicole Kerkenbush

Nicole Kerkenbush

When Kerkenbush and her CEO sat down to discuss their Meaningful Use progress, they sensed a disconnect. As Kerkenbush put it, “With millions invested in an electronic health record and other software to meet Meaningful Use guidelines, we felt like we weren’t seeing the return we wanted to see. We wanted a tenfold return.” Her CEO Brent Phillips floated the idea of creating a Chief Performance Officer (CPO) with a broad scope to capitalize on Meaningful Use’s momentum. Aligning their health system with the investments made in IT systems to realize that return through improved outcomes, quality and performance wasn’t the COO’s role, nor did it fit with the traditional IT leadership roles of CIO, CTO or CAO. The business needed an innovative take on performance improvement at the executive level, and from there created the role of the CPO.

Kerkenbush agreed it would be a boon. The chief performance officer is an evolutionary step from the chief applications officer, and expands on the work created by the CAO and their team. The CAO is responsible for the electronic heartbeat of an organization, maintaining the inner workings of devices and software that generate reams of patient and performance data. But that word, maintain, is the CAO’s stock and trade. While applications officers push an organization forward through technological change, their scope often limits them to technological systems. Like many providers, Regional Health created reports and made recommendations but lacked a unified mechanism to turn recommendations and data into organizational action. As Kerkenbush explained, the CPO “takes data that’s created and turns it into intelligence, then turns that into knowledge, and then turns that knowledge into wisdom.” They bridge the communications gap between data and performance. They maintain and refine human applications.

Kerkenbush built her team to answer these two questions: How do you achieve the synergy you need between the people who measure things and the people who affect process changes? How do you have the structure in place to support those groups in their efforts? In Kerkenbush’s new role, she’ll take the reins of the quality, patient safety and risk management team, and the performance excellence, business Intelligence and labor management staff. When processes run and information is collected, Kerkenbush and the departments that report to her analyze, respond and find ways to improve functionality within the hospital system.

Key partnerships throughout the organization are critical to the work the CPO and her team generate. Take for example, Kerkenbush’s enterprise intelligence team. “For us, enterprise intelligence started in IT, but it wasn’t the right home for it. It’s a great place for it to start, to build those relationships with IT and ensure business intelligence and IT can coordinate and communicate.” As chief performance officer, she now oversees the enterprise intelligence team. They work side by side with an internal project management office, risk management and quality improvement under the same guidance and leadership, creating a valuable feedback mechanism to further operational efficiency. By decreasing the distance information flows through the organization to create actionable guidance, Kerkenbush and her team can better synthesize that information and create change at a faster pace.

In organizations where IT is less centralized or monitored, Kerkenbush sees establishing a chief performance officer as another opportunity to weed out “shadow IT,” or the eventual result of siloed departments creating information technology systems and physical solutions without explicit organizational approval. “Stove pipe solutions,” she said, “can’t help the entire system grow and be defined.” Having a CPO will also help Regional Health extend business analytics support to smaller or recently established departments, such as their “HomePlus” unit, which moved their homecare administration under one roof. Kerkenbush sees this as a strategic advantage, allowing all analytics support and performance improvement to “take place under the same sort of rules.” The ability to unify and support smaller departments allows the entire organization to converge on a singular set of improvement objectives.

While the key metrics to measure the success of the realignment are being sorted out, Kerkenbush’s team plans to narrow their list to five critical areas. These sign posts will help guide their first-year goals and project the impact of unifying pieces of the organization that were once dispersed among different departments. As she steps into a role that hasn’t yet been fully carved out, Kerkenbush and her new team are excited to finally coordinate and collaborate as a unit, looking to answer the question, “what is our next target?”

Changes to healthcare typically happen slowly – patient care cannot be stopped for upgrades or outages, and resources are often scarce. The role of the chief performance officer looks to expand on the benefits of Meaningful Use criteria and expand the role data, technology and critical evaluation can play in healthcare. Bit by bit, innovations like the addition of the chief performance officer chip away at the old standards and methods of care delivery and organizational structure to reveal the face of tomorrow’s healthcare.

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