The Changing Role of Health IT Leaders: Positioning for Success Moving Forward

As the health care landscape rapidly changes, it’s crucial for CIOs to look to be forward-thinking as they focus on how to harness health care data.

Health care organizations have undergone much change in recent years, including the need to incorporate a growing array of technological advances into their day-to-day operations. In fact, as innovations such as population health, big data, and precision medicine are transforming the current landscape, in the process they’re also changing the role of chief information officers (CIOs), who must now adapt to new demands and challenges.

The New Role for CIOs

In 2018, CIOs must develop comprehensive strategies that will enable them to accomplish their traditional roles while also stepping up to meet a host of new responsibilities simultaneously, according to Mary Finlay, MBA, who serves as the Program Director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership Strategies for Information Technology in Health Care. This program is geared specifically for IT leaders and other key stakeholders who want to learn how to position themselves and their own organizations for success within the new realities.

The Current and Evolving Landscape

“The interesting thing is that we are coming off of a stage in health care where the US spent $30 billion [through the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH)] getting hospitals to adopt health care technology,” Finlay says. “Most health care organizations are beyond the big wave of implementing electronic health care records (EHRs) over the last five to seven years.” Now, the next challenge for CIOs is how to make sure EHRs are being used to their full advantage.

Most CIOs have one foot in the traditional CIO space and one foot in the future, as they focus on how to harness all of the data that is being generated through EHRs and the array of health apps that exist today.

This means that leaders need to be figuring out how to optimize this major investment and incorporate EHRs capacity into their long-range plans to ultimately improve care and navigate all of the current realities and pressures.

“Most CIOs have one foot in the traditional CIO space and one foot in the future, as they focus on how to harness all of the data that is being generated through EHRs and the array of health apps that exist today,” she says.

This represents a big challenge, but it is one that many health care CIOs are stepping up to meet with grace. An annual global survey of CIOs by Gartner, Inc., found that health care CIOs are already playing an important role in aligning with their organization’s business goals, and are also helping to accelerate growth. One area where health care CIOs are lagging behind other industries, though, is in positioning themselves to manage the digital business realm. However, the survey found some of the most forward-thinking CIOs are successfully navigating this evolving responsibility, and others will likely follow in their footsteps moving forward as the roles and expectations become more clearly defined.

The Need to Adapt to Changing Roles

Finlay points out that the most successful IT leaders of the future will likely be those who are flexible and can easily adapt to the changing landscape.

Health care organizations are facing demands from a number of directions, including the move from fee for service to value based payments, the expansion of organizations through mergers, and the proliferation of new technologies that now exist beyond the scope of the IT framework. Finlay says that CIOs must be poised to adapt to the impact these changes are causing, while at the same time integrating these evolving priorities into their day-to-day operations.

The role of CIO is evolving. The new technology leader needs to be able to move away from managing technology under his or her complete [authority] to partnering with other leaders throughout the enterprise.

“The new CIOs need to think about how to lead differently, how to connect with others, and how to position their organizations,” she says. “IT leaders must also ask themselves, ‘What do I need to bring to my organization in order to manage the current responsibilities and also to focus on the future?’” she adds.

So, What’s a CIO to Do?

What all this means, then, is that health care IT leaders need to be strategic in determining how to position themselves—and their organizations—moving forward.

“This is the time to really pivot and rethink what is most important in a leadership role in health care technology,” Finlay says.

She points out that the latest crop of CIOs and other IT leaders will need to be focused more on business outcomes than in the past, will need to focus more on innovation, and will need to be comfortable with the fact that not all technology will be under the management of the IT organization.

“The role of CIO is evolving. The new technology leader needs to be able to move away from managing technology under his or her complete [authority] to partnering with other leaders throughout the enterprise,” Finlay says. She points out that this requires thinking about how to build and capitalize on technological innovations across the organization, while also making sure all systems are stable and secure.

If this sounds like a tall order, it certainly is.

“CIOs have to have a strategy for how to accomplish this,” Finlay says.  “How are they going to harness and manage data that is being generated at an explosive rate and will continue to evolve?” she asks. The answers to such questions will remain critical for the foreseeable future. “We are moving into a whole new era in health care technology with an abundance of challenges and opportunities,” Finlay adds.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Leadership Strategies for Information Technology in Health Care, a leadership course that provides the tools to drive health IT performance and value. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.