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CIO Leadership Series: Meriter's Kerra Guffey takes the strategic lead

Kerra Guffey
Madison, Wis. - Business processes, especially process transformation, are becoming a top-of-mind concern for chief information officers. That's true in both the technology and healthcare realms, but the latter industry attaches additional weight to clinical processes.

In this case, those processes can be the difference between time-consuming practices and greater efficiency, and even between life and death. Kerra Guffey, the new chief information officer for Meriter Hospital in Madison, knows her IT department is in a position to impact care, and she plans to make quite an impact.

“Our job is to enable clinical processes so Meriter provides excellent care to every single patient that comes through our doors,” she said. “We're part of this organization, and we have to make good decisions that allow our clinicians to be efficient and effective.”

VoIP, Lawson, and Epic

With regard to major information technology implementations, some of those decisions already have been made, and it will be Guffey's job to see them through.
Guffey, who joined the organization last July, has inherited three key strategic initiatives: a new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system, which went live in September; Phase I of a new Lawson enterprise resource management system, which went live in August; and the on-going Epic Systems electronic medical record installation. Her immediate focus is not on introducing any major new projects, but to make sure these initiatives progress, and IT has established a process to report back to Meriter's board on whether the projected benefits are achieved.

While the launch went well, Guffey admitted that VoIP has been a challenge in some of Meriter's busier areas. Since the product has more features and functionality than most businesses can initially roll out, she knows there will be some follow up to ensure that Meriter is taking full advantage of what the system has to offer.

“I think those are the areas we've really been trying to focus on and see what adjustments we can make to meet the user's needs,” she said. “We expect to have dial tone like we expect to have like electricity. It needs to be there.”

She characterized the Lawson go-live as “phenomenal,” especially given that it's a large-scale replacement of a long-standing legacy system. Lawson is a multi-phase project, with Phase I having addressed broad financial reporting functions like general ledger, accounts payable, payroll, and materials management. Phase II, which will occur this year, will add budgeting and planning pieces.

With Epic, the 2008 focus will be working with doctors on a new Computerized Physician Order Entry system, a computer system that allows direct entry of medical orders by doctors. CPOEs are designed reduce errors by minimizing the confusion or ambiguity of hand-written orders, but an even greater benefit can be achieved with the combination of CPOE and clinical decision support tools.

Epic Systems offers many different modules, and hospitals must choose between different modules at different points in time. “It's very much focused on your organizational readiness for some of the larger changes,” Guffey said.

While CPOE will be a focus in 2008, the Epic installation is a long-term project. There are a number of predecessor projects that IT will work on while the physicians help determine what the CPOE order sets will look like. When the system goes live, she noted, it has to be user-friendly, so it's only appropriate that users be involved in the design.

The long view

Having spent a great deal of time looking at Meriter's IT infrastructure, facilities, and getting to know the staff, Guffey also is in the process of wrapping up an updated version of the hospital's strategic IT plan. Since Meriter already has started down the path of technologies like virtualization, this established trend figures to be part of any future strategy.

In Guffey's view, the cost-saving value of virtualization is unassailable, and because one challenge for all healthcare organizations is that there are many priorities competing for capital, the better they leverage investments in server hardware, the more capital is freed for other purposes.

Yet given the nature of virtualization projects, where vendor input is crucial, there cannot be a rush to implement. “Do we have a [server consolidation] number in mind? No we don't,” Guffey said. “We're just trying to look for places where we have opportunities to take advantage of it, but we also recognize that it's new and we obviously don't want to put our clinical systems in any way at risk.

“So we're going to do it in the appropriate, measured way so that we feel comfortable that our users will see no change.”

The strategic IT plan, including data center facilities, will have to be coordinated with Meriter's new master facilities plan, but Guffey believes it's a visioning exercise.

“We want to understand what we have and create that vision of what the future of Meriter IT needs to be,” she said. “As we work on our organizational strategic priorities, it's a real focus of mine to make sure that our IT priorities align with those so that we are choosing the solutions that will enable the organization, ultimately, to be successful.

“There are more good ideas than people and capital to bring them to light, so we have to make sure we're using our resources in the best way possible.”

To execute her eventual IT strategy, Guffey plans to hire technically competent, resilient people who want to be part of a team, who enjoy technology, and who embrace and grasp change. In this era, where technology changes over night, she believes intellectual curiosity will be an increasingly important intangible.

“We'll look for someone who is intellectually curious because we have an obligation to be watching where technology is going,” she said, “and bring to Meriter suggestions for what the future may hold.”

Users at the table

A native of Illinois, Guffey earned her undergraduate degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, and she has an MBA from the University of California-Irvine with concentrations in IT management and finance. She also owns a certificate in biomedical informatics from Oregon Health and Science University, and prior to joining Meriter last July, she served as senior vice president and CIO of Memorial Health Systems in Springfield, Ill.

At Meriter, a 448-bed teaching hospital, she oversees an IT staff of about 80 people, and she appreciates the foundation left by her predecessor, the retired Peter Strombom. He emphasized the Tight-Loose-Tight model for IT implementations, which features heavy end-user input throughout planning and implementation.

The involvement of key stakeholders in a project from the beginning to the end is a critical part of her decision-making process on large implementations. The best lesson she's learned from an IT implementation is that the right people make all the difference between success and failure. When CIOs look back and assess a project, she said the key determinant usually is whether they had everybody involved that needed to be involved.

“I thought the theory that he [Strombom] used was very similar to mine,” said Guffey, who also has experience with external consulting and project implementation. “I like to empower people to do their jobs, and I recognize that it takes a whole team to make sure these projects are carried out successfully, and not just IT,” she said. “I very much appreciated his perspective that it takes everybody. The clinical users must be at the table, and we must make sure that, from an IT perspective, that we deliver what they need to provide excellent care to our patients.”


Mike Sauk responded 7 years ago: #1

Excellent interview! Welcome to Madison Kerra.

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