Collaboration and quick response are essential to navigating uncertain times, says CHIME CEO and President Russell Branzell.

Oct 21 2020

Q&A: Russell Branzell of CHIME on Fostering Leadership

As health IT teams continue to work remotely, the organization’s annual gathering also will move online — and expand its target audience.

The continuing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic mean health IT employees have never been more visible — or valuable.

Leaders now face rapidly evolving duties that have long-term implications for future care delivery, says Russell Branzell, president and CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME).

Their profiles have also broadened beyond typical IT tasks. “They’re growing and really merging into these amazing skill sets as digital health leaders deploying things to help an organization change,” Branzell says.

Branzell spoke about these and other shifts in advance of CHIME20: Digital Recharge — to be held virtually Nov. 10-12 in lieu of the organization’s annual Fall CIO Forum.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Explore our coverage from the CHIME19 Fall CIO Forum.

HEALTHTECH: What will an all-virtual CHIME conference look like?

BRANZELL: Having a digital conference is no different than one of our great leaders trying to run a tough IT organization right now from home. It really does have a lot of parallels.

Still, for almost 30 years, we’ve come together in person. The family part of this is one of the things that is special about CHIME. So many people are dear friends and have been through the journeys of life together. Admittedly, that will be hard to re-create.

Our team is putting an amazing program together. Think of the setup like cable TV: People are going to be able to pick what they want and how they want to be able to see and experience it. There will be multiple channels going on at the same time.

HEALTHTECH: What will sessions cover? Who do you want to reach?

BRANZELL: The itinerary will be very much driven by the learnings of the last six months. However, I think there’s just as much content on transformational leadership and applying these skills to drive performance and change within an organization — and keeping everyone motivated through that process.

This high-quality digital experience isn’t just for our traditional membership, which is obviously the executives of these organizations along with our foundation partners. We’re now encouraging people to bring their teams along for the journey.

HEALTHTECH: How has the role of health IT changed since the pandemic?

BRANZELL: I don’t think any of us, including myself, knew how far down the path of digital maturity we really were until this event stressed the system and the system performed at an amazing level.

There was an enormous ability to push back with the scaling of technology to drive the response: virtual care, virtual observation, telehealth, remote working.

Organizations, in some cases, sent home 15,000 employees in a weekend. Presented with this as a concept or a case study a year ago, I don’t think anyone would have said we could do what was done in a matter of days or weeks. It’s a good thing it didn’t take a year; we would have overplanned it.

HEALTHTECH: Are IT staffers getting more credit for their work?

BRANZELL: I believe there is a better respect for the criticality of health IT and digital health to the success of healthcare mov­ing forward. Organizations want to add new functionalities and create an ecosystem that is not hospital-bound but community-bound.

Many physicians I previously worked with have said that if it wasn’t for IT supporting telemedicine, remote care and the ability to flex in some jobs, their short-term careers could have been massively compromised. A few even went as far as to say this could have been the end of their practices.

HEALTHTECH: What new challenges do leaders face?

BRANZELL: Based on our successes, there is now an extreme expectation. I’ve talked to a couple hundred of our members over the past few months. Their full plates are getting fuller with less resources, and maybe less money.

People need to regroup and get their feet underneath them a little bit more.

I was just talking with a CIO who told me, “I have no idea if I’m running my team correctly in a virtual world when I haven’t seen 95 percent of them since February.”

How do you ensure, then, that a team is performing well? We know they’re working their tails off, but it’s also about making sure psyche and morale are good for the long term. It does stretch a manager’s skill set and thought process because the concept is so different from what we’ve traditionally done.

HEALTHTECH: What are the qualities of a strong health IT leader?

BRANZELL: The expectation in healthcare is that a leader is able to deliver new things, sometimes not even knowing what they were yesterday, and deploy those technologies in an excellent way.

Doing so is critical to help guide organizations through cultural and behavioral adaptation at a pace that’s not normal. We’ve called this a “3.0 leader.” These individuals must rely on new relationship and change leadership skills — not just change management.

Russell Branzell
The expectation in healthcare is that a leader is able to deliver new things, sometimes not even knowing what they were yesterday, and deploy those technologies in an excellent way."

Russell Branzell President and CEO, CHIME

They also just demand and expect and ensure operational excellence. Things work all the time. You don’t expect the Wi-Fi now in your home to work 90 percent of the time; it drives you crazy without perfect bandwidth.

Value realization is a huge component too. I’ve made investments, so how do I multiply them at an exponential level?

HEALTHTECH: What developments do you see shaping care in 2021 and beyond?

BRANZELL: There is a future state we have to look at, as we’ve seen with the progression of SpaceX. Think about it: A civilian-based organization driving and performing standards and requirements better than what a well-funded government program probably could have done. You go, “OK, how do you make SpaceX healthcare?”

We’re going to see organizations creating change with new technologies in ways that are SpaceX-like, such as robotics, advanced technologies, blockchain, and actually start seeing quantifiable, data-driven outcomes.

Consider drones: These aren’t the things my kids play with in the back­yard. Drones are now what I’m going to use to deliver an organ across New York City because I can’t get through traffic, or to deliver medications to people in difficult situations.

HEALTHTECH: How can organizations take advantage of this progress?

BRANZELL: We encourage CHIME partners and members to think about and to create collaborative partnerships at an accelerated pace, which we used to talk about happening over a period of years.

I don’t think it will be years — or even months — anymore. People are looking for outcomes and change in a matter of days or weeks.

There are dozens of advanced technologies that transformational leaders are going to have to grapple with. And there’s a duality of messaging we’ll continue to push: Thrive today and also be ready for tomorrow.

Photography by Ben Rollins