HealthOctober 23, 2018

Nursing informaticists: Encouraging women to take IT leadership roles

This is the second post in a series on the role of Chief Nursing Informatics Officers, based on a meeting of nine CNIOs convened in April 2018 by the Scottsdale Institute, a member organization of large non-profit health systems.

CNIOs can be found at the intersection of two of the most gender-determined career paths in U.S. life. As nurses they are part of a profession that until the last 20 years has been mostly female. As IT experts they operate in a world that is overwhelmingly male. As women executives propelled to leadership within the nursing work force, they are asked to harness the male IT workforce to the clinical needs of the female users.

“How can we get more women leaders in healthcare IT?” asks Sherri Hess, RN, chief nursing informatics officer at Banner Health. “IT leadership tends to be about 99 percent male. We need to mentor more women leaders on boards.”

The importance of making clinical IT systems work more effectively on behalf of health professionals and patients can’t be underestimated. A recent poll on the Future of Healthcare by The Doctors Company revealed that 54% of physician respondents believe that electronic health records have had a negative impact on the physician-patient relationship. Doctors feel that “EHRs are burdensome and distracting during patient interaction,” according to a report in Health Data Management.

Nurses who have developed this kind of expertise in information technology will be well positioned to advance not only the mission of their organizations but their own careers.

Darby Dennis, RN, vice president for clinical information technology at Houston Methodist, sees more women in IT roles than ever before. Of the three vice presidents in her organization, two are women. It is less of an issue than it used to be, she thinks.

One thing that may be holding women back is their personal style. “Men are commonly very direct,” observes Jennifer Carpenter, RN, vice president for IT clinical systems at University Hospitals. “I am more reserved in my initial approach than many male colleagues. I have a tendency to work through a situation internally first. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I just voice them differently.”

Plenty was heard from CEOs, CFOs, CMIOs and CIOs at the Scottsdale Institute’s main conference, held a few days before the CNIO meeting, Darby Dennis points out. “There was not a focus on CNIOs (who are mostly females). I would like to see that change. I would like us to take a full role in the annual conference.”

Clearly, there is a need to mentor more women as leaders, and particularly women as IT experts. “How do we mentor women?” asks Judy Blauwet, RN, chief clinical information officer at Avera Health. “How can we make sure we have the skills to be competent and confident to step forward and take a role on leadership teams? It’s not as though women have no power in some of our organizations. As an example, Avera Health is owned by Catholic Sisters. Thus women will be making the final decision for our next CEO.”

Mentoring and professional growth is happening in the field. At Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, nurses teach the informatics immersion course. At Banner Health, nurses on the informatics team will get their ANCC certification.

At UCLA Health, certification is not required as part of the hiring process. But it is expected that nurses will acquire certification during their time at the health system, notes Ellen Pollack, RN, chief nursing informatics officer. The nurses created a study group. “It was a nice bonding exercise for the nurse informaticists,” she says. They took the certification exam together.

The kinds of capabilities that CNIOs are exercising in the course of their duties didn’t exist until fairly recently. The clinical problems that nurse informaticists are solving are a consequence of 40 years of effort to build out fully functional clinical information systems that can guide the care of individuals and populations.

“We now have the know-how, the technology and the urgency to make this happen,” said Peter Bonis, MD, chief medical officer of Clinical Effectiveness for Wolters Kluwer.

“Ten or twenty years ago, we didn’t have the proliferation of electronic medical record systems or the digitization of healthcare. Now, most healthcare providers in the US are working in front of a computer for much of the day. The value from these systems has yet to be extracted.

“But part of that is to harness all of that information that is available, to understand that work flow, and understand the dynamics as they are working with their patients, in order to help them do a better job and to help patients make better choices.”

As a Scottsdale Institute member organization, Wolters Kluwer sponsored the CNIO Summit and produced a 13-page report, Managing Change and Optimizing Clinical Innovation, summarizing the discussion.


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