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CIO Leadership Series: Mike Sauk, UW Hospital and Clinics

Madison, Wis. - A lot of chief information officers try to measure their value in financial terms, and Mike Sauk is no different.

Mike Sauk
Sauk, vice president and CIO of University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, isn't talking about balance sheet return on investment; he has in mind a more practical form of ROI.

When he interviewed for the job, which he accepted in August of 2006, Sauk told UWHC executives that he would evaluate success on whether he could implement three or four initiatives that improve patient care. That, of course, is the core mission of any hospital and clinic system, and Sauk knows the mission is possible with technology that improves patient access to physicians, physician access to patient data, and the administration of care.

If Sauk can leverage technology in this manner, he believes his tenure will yield plenty of financial benefits. And given the pace of change the organization is undergoing, Sauk will have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the business value provided by his IT department.

Sauk does not believe IT projects have to be complex, and it helps if they remove complexity for end-users and patients. UWHC is spread out with many clinic sites, and there are as many phone numbers as there are clinics. All it took was one call to schedule a doctor's appointment for Sauk to identify his first opportunity to improve the patient experience.
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A native of Madison, Sauk has come home after career stops in Michigan and California, and he noted that multiple phone numbers can make it confusing for newcomers to access the system. There is no single phone number that patients call to make an appointment, so the organization is working on a new patient intake process where the system can advertise a single number and advertise it widely.

While Sauk was at the University of California-Irvine Medical Center, his IT team installed a centralized appointment scheduling system, and as a result new patients have been able to identify a single number to reach the right people quickly.

“If we can put together a navigator to help people get to the right people, the right clinic, and the right doctor quickly, that's one of the major things I'd like to do here.”

But not the only thing.

Leading IT

Prior to joining UWHC, Sauk's prior CIO stints have been 10 years, eight years, seven years at Detroit Medical Center, City of Hope, and UCI, respectively. He holds a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a master's degree in science administration from Central Michigan University.

In Sauk's view, CIO leadership is about delivering results, no matter what the project. There are so many CIOs who have rotated between organizations, and they don't last because they fail to deliver the expected results on time and on budget. If you took a survey of CEOs about what they would like to see in a CIO, Sauk believes it would be someone that can consistently deliver results, which is proven by the fact that the average CIO tenure in healthcare is only 2-1/2 to three years.

“It's always amazed me how there are so many CIOs in the industry that are able to recirculate and reinvent themselves every three years and get accepted into organizations when their resume shows that they've never held a job longer than three years or four years max,” he said.

Sauk attributes his ability to last with aligning key IT implementations with the operational and strategic objectives of his employers. In the organizations he's served, there always have been operational committees of people who, when given a laundry list of annual projects, are entrusted with making judgments about whether project requests align with organizational mission.

At UWHC, transplants are a big part of the core business, so if a project calls for a transplant research database, that's an immediate alignment priority, he said.

“What I'm trying to get to is that the interdisciplinary groups of operational leaders are the ones that need to align IT projects with business and clinical objectives,” he said. “Our role, the IT role, is to provide advice and consulting from a feasibility standpoint or an underlying architecture standpoint, as to what fits and what doesn't fit.”

All-digital hospital

At the moment, the organization's most important initiative is the opening of the new American Family Children's Hospital in July, and the objective is to grow the system's pediatric business. Concurrently, it's second major strategic project is the implementation of an Epic Systems electronic health record, where the objective is not only to move beyond paper records, but to improve patient care and safety, to upgrade communications, and build teamwork among the patient care team.

In this project, the IT team, in partnership with key clinical leaders, is intimately involved in the details of planning, execution, and project management. They will be held accountable for whether the Epic product is installed on time, on budget, and produces the envisioned results.

With 50 percent of its lab orders still written on paper, that vision is for an all-digital hospital. Among the many decisions the organization has made as part of the hospital project is to replace its entire data network with a state-of-art Cisco solution. Since most of UWHC's data networking equipment is in the six-year-old range, it will implement a backbone that has 10 times the bandwidth speed of the current system.

Along with that, it will install a new wireless infrastructure for both the in-patient adult facility and the new children's hospital. The wireless function will not only be built to handle proprietary needs, but also to facilitate public access for visitors and patients.

The key to an all-digital workflow, however, is to have a fully implemented Epic electronic record system. “It will have an all-digital infrastructure capable of supporting an all-digital healthcare system, so were building an infrastructure to support that,” Sauk explained. “But the system will lag behind that. You have to build the foundation first.”

Hospital, heal thyself

Interoperability between institutions locally, statewide, and nationally is an issue that weighs on concepts like regional health information organizations, or RHIOs, which are promoted as a way for healthcare entities to share patient information. What often is overlooked is interoperability within organizations due to disparate systems and applications.

Sauk, a member of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, recalled a recent article on the failure of RHIOs. The author attributed those failures to the inability of participating organizations to address their intraoperability issues before linking to the outside world.

“They had too much complexity internally to start talking to other complex organizations,” Sauk noted.

In Madison, where local health systems are working to share information as part of a community RHIO, those issues are minimized by a universal reliance on Epic products. That's not to say it will be easy to accomplish because, even as public pressure mounts to securely share information, each organization has to make sure its own operational abilities are not compromised.

“Every time you open your door to visitors, you stand the chance of being harmed by the visitor,” Sauk explained, “so that's a valid concern also.”

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