I was talking the other day with the chief executive officer of a large healthcare information technology company. The man seems to know his stuff, and he says he has a vision for our industry. He told me he wants to bring order and discipline to the business of delivering healthcare to patients. He wants every provider to have the information systems capability to communicate effectively across the organization and with patients and payers. He says he believes this will lead to better care for patients and a better bottom line for providers, even if they have to spend a lot of money to get there.
This executive impressed me not only because of his passion but also his apparent knowledge of the industry and the trends that are shaping it. There are some other vendor CEOs whom I believe don't have a clue about the nuances of the healthcare industry and I always wonder how they manage to sell their products to savvy healthcare executives.
You would think if a large portion of a company's sales is to one industry, you might take the time to get better acquainted with what's happening in that marketplace, but some people believe a sale is a sale, I guess. Not true of this IT executive. He obviously has been involved in our industry a long time.
In our conversation, we somehow got on the topic of his outreach to health system chief executives. Some are only too happy to talk to him, but there are others who equate the call with just another annoying, time-consuming sales pitch that diverts their attention from their jobs. Others have made the decision to keep a closed mind about the development of new products that may make their institutions work more efficiently and productively on behalf of their patients.
The bottom line: My IT CEO says roughly seven out of 10 healthcare chief executives don't or won't pick up the phone, letting aides screen the calls.
I know that many executives in the healthcare world were burned in the late 1980s and early '90s by high-tech companies that waltzed in with exorbitant claims about their products that didn't pan out, costing their clients millions in the process. There may be some vendors who still don't have good products, but they are being weeded out through fierce competition. Nevertheless, I believe healthcare CEOs have to keep an open mind about all the new IT products that are being developed because some of them may be critical to their organization's success.
For some, IT may make the difference between winning and losing. I know that's a pretty big statement, but it seems that too many top healthcare executives aren't aware of how far behind they are in the competition. We all know healthcare has a history of failing to adopt information systems technology.
In a turbulent time, when things such as electronic medical records and computerized physician order entry may be mandated by payers, knowing all the options can only help a healthcare leader. Sure, every institution has an IT staff to talk with about this issue, but what is wrong with getting a perspective from someone at your level at a large, national vendor firm?
I know all of us in senior management are busy, but you never know when a routine call will lead to something big for you and your organization. That's why I try to answer my own phone when I can. If someone wants to give my business a helping hand, I am ready to hear what he or she has to say. Even if it doesn't lead to something concrete, hearing the many different ideas out there gives me perspective.
And that brings me to another point: You can't delegate all this decisionmaking to your IT staff or operations people. Don't get me wrong. If you have read this page often, you know I am a big believer in delegating authority. You have to respect your colleagues and empower them to take on the responsibility necessary to do their jobs well.
You also have to listen to all of their concerns and let them play a big role in any major decision. All of that doesn't mean that you shouldn't have input from a wide array of sources before making a purchasing decision as large as a new information system, which may be the biggest capital spending deal you do during your tenure.
And vendors can be sources, even if you don't happen to buy their particular product. It's part of their job to help teach the people to whom they market their products.
There is no question that IT can be a daunting topic and that there are many vendors in the marketplace. I also know that many CEOs think sales calls are a low priority, but it's their job to make sure they have absolutely all of the information they need to lead their organizations the right way, toward better productivity and service.
So yes, a conversation with an IT chief executive may be another form of sales call, but when an industry leader is on the line, it may make good business sense to pick up the phone and listen to someone with expertise who wants to help you.
Listen and learn,
Editors note: This column originally ran April 21, 2003. The author is recovering from knee surgery.