Bill Spooner’s health IT journey goes on

April 7, 2014 in Medical Technology

Bill Spooner “retired” from his post as leader of Sharp HealthCare’s 450-member IT team on Feb. 14. The quotes around “retired” are necessary because he has something in the works – he won’t say what yet. It’s something that will keep him working halftime, or maybe more. It’s too hard to leave healthcare IT altogether at this promising juncture, he says.

It’s an exciting time in health IT, and he’s not ready to give it up. But, he is also looking forward to spending time driving his 1957 John Deere tractor around the 22 acres of land where he and his wife bought a home in eastern Tennessee nearly nine years ago, with an eye toward retirement. It seems fitting. Spooner grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. The vintage tractor is the same one his dad bought new back on the farm. First order of business when Spooner gets to Tennessee is cleaning the carburetor and getting it started. “I was not about to let the tractor go away,” he said.

All told, Spooner has worked at Sharp for 35 years, starting in 1978 as a financial analyst and consultant. Three years later he was named CFO of Sharp’s second hospital. He moved to the IT side sometime in the mid ’80s, and on March 1, 1996, he became the CIO.

Before he left for Tennessee, we talked with Spooner about his work, the increasing demands of the job, his take on meaningful use and the changing role of the healthcare CIO.

Q: You made the transition from CFO to CIO. Is that a common thing?
A: “I’m not sure if it’s common or not. But I have friends and colleagues who come from many different backgrounds, some who are actually CPAs. They may have come in from an accounting firm, or consulting firm. There are great nurses who have taken the role of pharmacists. It was good for me moving into IT at the time that I did because the financial systems were the dominant computer applications at the time. We were just starting to stick our toe in the water around clinical systems in the mid ’80s. At the time I moved over I was familiar with billing, accounting, payroll, inventory, all of that stuff, and I had to learn the clinical side over the years. But it was a natural transition for me then.”

Q: How are things different today than when you started as CIO 18 years ago?
A: “At that time, we had the basic order entry systems. We were just getting into using online systems, but they weren’t systems that for the most part were being used by clinicians. A lot of the work was being done by clerical staff. Documentation for the most part was still manual. Eighteen years ago, if the systems went down, you still knew how to do things manually, and they weren’t so complex that you couldn’t for a short period of time. The biggest change in the patient care processes revolve around the technology, and it’s really indispensable. For the past several years the focus has been on reducing the scheduled downtime. There’s no time that it’s convenient to turn those computers off. The technology is not at the point where we can upgrade in flight.”

Q: What’s tested you the most?
A: “What has probably tested me the most is being a non-clinical person when your whole mission is providing technology support for clinical practice. I almost never go through without recognizing how much I have to learn. It’s just so important to be able to partner with the clinical side of the business to be able to really do the best work for them. That’s the most challenging.”

Another challenge

“Like many of these integrated delivery networks, we didn’t just come out of nowhere. We were the result of affiliations, mergers around community hospitals, each with their own culture, each with their own practice. The way to manage it is to persuade these individual organizations that they need to collaborate, and that the technology works better if we can get them to agree upon common practice, that probably the healthcare that they provide across the organization is better if they can minimize the variation in their practice.”

Q: Has your role in terms of strategy and contributing to the vision changed over the years?
A: “It has changed to the extent that it is well recognized that you don’t go forward in a business initiative without IT at the table. Today, when there is a major conversation about change, mergers, acquisitions etcetera, new business models, we are readily invited to the table. Another thing that has been good in our organization is that we’ve really worked hard over the past several years to try to implement stronger and stronger project and portfolio management processes. Given the complexity and the number of initiatives under way at any one time, it’s to ensure success. The organization has come to appreciate that usually the IT component will be among the stronger elements in terms of any interdisciplinary project, in terms of delivering on time, on budget, etcetera. In some cases, we’ve been able to take a lead role in these things because we typically do cover all of our bases and manage these initiatives fairly well. ICD-10 is a good example. ICD-10 is a major interdisciplinary issue between health information management and proper documentation as well as the computer systems changes that are going on. The IT project portfolio management team is leading and tracking the overall project, and the overall team is grateful for that.”

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