By Robert White, MD, FAAFP

Fourteen years ago, when I first became a Chief Medical Information Officer, I didn’t have a lot of peers – or at least, not many people who shared my title. Like a lot of you, I arrived in this role through trial and error, and a little bit of opportunism. I had been recruited from a traditional family practice to work for a larger institution and establish a new hospitalist program, and eventually I became the organization’s Chief Medical Officer. It was during those CMO days that our organization implemented its first electronic health records system, a process that I was very much involved in. By 2004, I found that a quarter of my time was being spent in IT, and the following year, I jumped at the opportunity to become a full-time CMIO.

Today, I am the CMIO for Allegheny Health Network, an eight-hospital, $3.4 billion health and wellness organization – itself part of the much larger Highmark Health, a $19 billion integrated health care delivery and financing system. That synergy with an affiliated health insurer is one of the things that attracted me to this position, and in partnership with Highmark Health, AHN is able to deploy its data and utilize its informatics tools in ways that wouldn’t have been possible as a standalone hospital system. Just last year, with Highmark's help, we completed the implementation of our Epic EHR system across the entirety of our network. (“Completed” is a moving target, of course – as we speak, AHN is building five new hospitals and six new cancer centers, each of which will require its own Epic rollout. The implementation phase never truly ends, as it turns out.)

Like many of my colleagues who once maintained a practice, even two decades later, I miss taking care of patients. It’s why we got into this profession. There’s nothing like a patient coming to you and saying, “Hey, thanks, doc.” I don’t hear much of that anymore. But undoubtedly, someone else is using the tools we have helped to create and implement, and is getting those thank-yous along the way. To the degree that we all enable other physicians, nurses and pharmacists to better care for their patients, there’s satisfaction in that. What we do is important, and it’s gratifying.

This field has changed a great deal in the last 15 years – the tools, the technologies, the sheer amount of data that we’ve collected. Old problems are solved and new ones arise. Patient expectations have shifted dramatically as we increasingly live our lives online. Yet our fundamental mission remains the same – helping physicians, nurses and other caregivers find the signal in the noise by managing and interpreting their patient data. We allow those clinicians to learn and adapt to new ways of practicing medicine, promoting wellness and healing the sick. At the end of the day, informatics is the thread that connects all pieces of this industry, and if we follow that thread, we can drive value and quality in ways that weren’t imaginable two decades ago.

About the Contributor

Dr. Robert White is Chief Medical Information Officer for Allegheny Health Network and currently serves as a member of the HIMSS Physician Committee.