The grill: Charles E. Christian

The CIO of Good Samaritan Hospital speaks to Computerworld.

Charles E. Christian got his start in healthcare in the clinical arena, working in radiology before moving into IT. Today he's CIO of Good Samaritan Hospital, a 232-bed community facility in Vincennes, Ind., with 1,600 employees. Christian, 57, has become a leader in healthcare through his work at Good Samaritan for the past 22 years and through his service on various policy and advocacy committees. In January, he was recognized as the 2010 John E. Gall Jr. CIO of the Year by the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, which jointly bestow the award on healthcare IT executives who make significant contributions to their organizations and demonstrate innovative leadership through effective use of technology.

If you didn't work in healthcare, what industry would you want to work in? Probably the National Parks Service. I like the outdoors.

The most interesting thing most people don't know about you: I used to race motorcycles.

What technology do you find most amazing? All of it. I'm a gearhead, but my children have turned me on to Apples and what they're able to do and how they all connect together and work in unison.

Does a clinical background, even if it's more than two decades in the past, give you an edge as CIO at a hospital? When I'm sitting with doctors and nurses and they're talking about care, I can grasp that better than I could if I was just a technology guy, because I had that experience. So I guess it's given me another set of vocabulary. I can understand when doctors and nurses start talking in very clinical terms what they're truly trying to get across.

What attracted you to IT? I got the idea that it could have a transformational impact on healthcare.

What do you consider your primary role? We talk about healthcare CIO 2.0, that we have to get more strategic. Where I live is about 18 to 24 months out. Some days I feel like the fire chief, but we have to keep our eye on the future [and ask], "How are things happening in D.C. going to shape healthcare in 24 months?" Because if we're not looking at that and translating that to the organization's strategy, we have opportunities for failure. And I'm kind of the evangelist, saying, "Here's what we can do," and the visionary who says, "OK, how do we gather people together to look at this common issue?" And I play the role of devil's advocate. I say "What if ..." a lot.

What are your long-term goals for your institution? We want to keep the organization viable. So we're looking at what we need to do and how we can cost-effectively put in IT to support that. There are some reimbursement models the government is looking at, and we're looking at what the implications will be and what we'll need to change so we're prepared for those changes when they come.

How do you see IT transforming healthcare? Technology can help us put the information that the clinicians need where they need it in a format that is standard. Right now, it's kind of like me being from the South; when you hear me talk, you know I'm from the South. The way clinicians talk is local too. We need to get to that standard language so if we're talking about a blood test, it doesn't matter if it's done here or in San Diego. And one thing technology can do is help us create that standardization so we can share that information. And I think technology will allow us to get a better handle on what the scientific-evidence-based best practices are that we can roll out in a timely manner, and using that data to figure out what's the best approach for this treatment for this patient.

You wrote that U.S. healthcare lags behind that of many other countries in terms of use of IT. Why? If you look at the countries that are ahead of us, they're much smaller and the population isn't that genetically different. But when you look at the U.S., there's a vast difference between New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Miami. We're a vast melting pot, and that makes delivery of healthcare very different. And there are places -- in rural Nebraska and Ohio, for example -- that don't even have broadband, so some of our infrastructure just isn't there.

The other thing is, we don't have the tendency for the government to step in and do these things, and I'm not sure that's appropriate. But if you look at Denmark, the way it's funded, the government is doing it. We have some of the best healthcare on the planet, but [as for] getting it rolled out to all our population, that's not necessarily true. It's the same thing with technology.

How would you grade your institution in terms of using IT to its fullest potential? The biased answer is, I think we get an A. The unbiased answer is, I think we get a B+. We have not been able to afford everything we want, but that has forced us to be more innovative and creative. And some of what we've done has been used and cloned by other organizations. We try to do everything we can with what we have, and we try to engage as many people as we can. We're not on the bleeding edge, but in some cases I think we've been leading a little bit. I've got a great team that has a long history in this organization and in the profession.

What can other healthcare institutions learn from your IT work at Good Samaritan? The one thing I tell all the folks I talk to is, you have to learn to listen better. I never go into a meeting and think I have the best solution. I have an idea, but it takes a collaborative effort from all aspects of all people providing care to come up with the best solution.

You can't listen to what you're being told if you're trying to formulate a rebuttal. That's my bag of tricks -- hear to listen.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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Mary K. Pratt

Computerworld (US)
Topics: health care, IT management, industry verticals, Good Samaritan Hospital
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