Influential Women in Health IT: Their Views

by Sarah Sample-Reif on September 14, 2017

There is so much opportunity in the Health IT sector, especially as the industry moves firmly into the digital era and has become so innovative. As Modis’ North American Vice President of Health IT, I’m committed to making sure that women take advantage of these opportunities at all levels. And, while women are under-represented in this field, as I noted in my previous blog post, there are many outstanding women who’ve achieved the highest levels in our field.

I have connected with a few of them to gather their insights and perspectives about where our profession is headed and what it takes to succeed in this field.

New Roles as Medicine and IT Converge

An important trend is the newer role of Chief Nursing Informatics Officer (CNIO). CNIOs are a liaison between the IT department and informatics for nurses and clinicians.

Sherri Hess, CNIO of Banner Health, is a former neonatal intensive-care nurse who obtained a master’s degree in information systems to achieve career growth and flexibility. When she went back to school in the late 1990s, she wasn’t aware that she could combine healthcare and IT.

Hess sees a general lack of awareness about the opportunities in Health IT and the possible career paths. “We need to better educate high schools and colleges in getting the word out,” she says.

Because this field is relatively new, the role of CNIO varies among organizations, while some people performing this role have other titles. For example, Judy McCarthy is Chief Technology Director and Information Security Officer of National Jewish Health, reporting directly to the CIO.

McCarthy says CNIOs may struggle to find a place in the C suite. Some report to the chief medical officer, reflecting long-established hospital hierarchies. Others report to the CIO, the CEO or chief nursing officer.

At all levels, Health IT job descriptions are in flux. “It’s a niche that’s hard to describe,” says Susan Clark, president of SD Clark Consulting. “Your IT people may be brilliant and can pull any information you need, but they’re unable to tell whether a report made sense and provided information that can be acted on.”

Medical informatics staff must be able to understand the workflow and information flow all the way along, Clark adds. “You need super-technical people, but also people who can interface with the clinical people.”

Changing Career Trajectories

Women often move into Health IT from nursing or other healthcare roles. McCarthy thinks that the growth of medical informatics is encouraging this. Sometimes a nurse is involved in the rollout of new technology and finds that she enjoys the technical side. She may become a super user and then, when a position becomes open, move to IT.

Hess thinks this is the best route for someone into a Health IT career. “You learn it from both sides while you’re providing input to the IT department from the clinical operations side.”

These women have found that the migration to Health IT still fulfills their passion for patient care, just in a different way.

McCarthy, who also began her career as a nurse, says of technology, “At the center of this is the patient. How do we make things better for the patient?” Her answer is that, by providing information and technology to support the medical staff’s workflow, the patient experience is also improved.

She emphasizes, “You are a healthcare employee. You don’t work for IT.”

Why Women Belong in Health IT

Women can bring special skill and abilities to the field of Health IT. Sharon Kirby, vice president and CNIO of Centura Health, points to the December 2016 Harvard study that found elderly hospital patients were less likely to be readmitted or to die within 30 days of discharge when treated by a female doctor.

While Health IT remains overwhelmingly male, Kirby says, “Women see things differently. We bring a different level of compassion and insight into patient care.”

Women can bring that same compassion and insight to the technology side, as well. McCarthy is excited by the many new approaches to medicine, such as personalized medicine – and how technology can support those approaches. “We’re in a world of constant change,” she says, “and Health IT is no different. An important aspect of Health IT is to be a change manager.”

These inspiring women are certainly helping to change the face and the practice of Health IT.

workforce diversity

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