English is the second non-native language he's had to learn to get ahead in the world, but it hasn't hampered Simon Samaha's ability to understand and be understood.
In fact, his intellectual quickness in the fields of medicine and information technology, and his capacity to communicate ideas to others in both fields, are the big reasons for his rise to chief information officer at Cooper Health System by age 32-while he has continued to juggle responsibilities as a hospitalist on the physician staff.
"He's a learning person," says Joan Williams, vice president of human resources. "He has a lot of intellectual curiosity."
Samaha's career migration from medical achiever to information-systems strategist occurred during desperate financial times at the Camden, N.J.-based healthcare system, which lost nearly $40 million in 1998 and 1999-and at one point had only eight hours' cash on hand-before rebounding into the black last year.
But those problems helped point the young doctor in directions where he could have an impact on Cooper's recovery, first by highlighting the role of hospitalists in reducing inpatient costs and then by impressing upon physicians the benefits of clinical information technology.
By understanding both the physician view and the IT function, "he enabled us to change our systems and make them more friendly to the physicians, and also to communicate to them why we need some of the information we ask for," says Ralph Dean, Cooper's chief operating officer.
Among other advances, 100% of orders for inpatient services are entered by physicians, a rarity in the industry but a routine at the flagship Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center since October 1998, Samaha says.
A native of Lebanon, Samaha came to Cooper in 1993 to study internal medicine after receiving a medical degree from the St. Joseph University medical school in Beirut. The seven-year combination of undergraduate and medical study was taught in French, requiring Samaha to master his first foreign language.
After accepting the residency, Samaha boned up on the English he had studied while in high school and never slowed down. He completed his residency in 1996 after being named intern of the year in 1994 and resident of the year in 1995. He also served as chief resident in 1997.
One of the first tasks he took on was to develop an economic justification for a hospitalist position, partly to convince credit-rating agencies that Cooper could get back to solvency despite a higher percentage of inpatient to outpatient business than typical in the industry.
By using internists to manage inpatient admissions and care, Cooper was able to make $1,000 more profit per patient than when specialists performed the same work. Geographical distribution of the specialists across 50 widely dispersed practices had contributed to high costs, an unusual situation compared with prevailing academic settings in which the faculty doctors are "usually five feet from the hospital," he says.
About two years into Samaha's residency, he began working with the vice president of medical affairs in the launch of a clinical information system and demonstrated his knack for combining medical and technological aims. Management put him on a physician advisory board to the IT department.
Before long, the CIO had bought 20% of Samaha's time to act as a buffer with residents, and by mid-1999 that percentage was up to 40%. By then Samaha was squeezing in classes at Drexel University toward a master's degree in information technology, envisioning himself in a CIO position. He recently completed degree requirements.
"Being a physician isn't enough," he says about the top information job. Doctors have an advantage in understanding the medical process, but they need to know the process of strategic planning and an understanding of operational and financial issues, he says.
The goal materialized in September 2000, when he was named CIO. Samaha still works one week a month as a hospitalist, a duty that requires advance delegation of tasks for the week to others in the information systems department. Samaha spends 50% of his time with executive management and only two or three days per month in a data center 12 miles from the hospital.
He's still closing a gap between physicians and the IT department that remained throughout the clinical-system gains. Although Samaha was part of the bridging effort, he concluded, "you can't make an impact until you're in charge."