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Mayo Clinic CIO in dealing with his own cancer “cringes” at state of IT usability

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Sometimes the proof is in the pudding or as Cris Ross, chief information officer of Mayo Clinic, put it — you have to eat what you cooked. That is what Ross encountered last year after spearheading the EHR conversion to Epic at Mayo and then receiving a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2018.

Suddenly he went from leading the health IT effort at Mayo to a humble patient, subjected to months of chemo, radiation therapy, multiple scans and never ending lab tests and office visits. As he undoubtedly wrestled with his mortality — his care team informed him that the cancer was serious but most likely curable —  the cancer also allowed him to experience first-hand how information and technology was being used in the hospital setting.

And all was not pretty.

“Our EHR conversion went well – we either met or exceeded all of our targets,” he said at the opening session of the annual HIMSS conference in Orlando on Tuesday. “But as I had my MRIs and CT scans and radiation therapy and lab appointments and office visits, I sometimes had to cringe seeing a clinician struggle with something that we simply haven’t mastered yet.”

While automation the collection of information had been achieved, data sharing and interoperability were the mountains that still needed climbing, he said. And for that to occur, the systems need to be made more usable.

“Vendors, health IT professionals, all of us here, want to deliver great usable systems,” he told the audience. “We know we can do better. That means that creating space for usability. That means being intolerable of the mediocre. That means trust, collaboration between clinicians and technology professionals.”

Aside from data sharing, he also urged the audience of primarily health IT professionals to know and prioritize what’s truly important. As they rush around to put out fires, do they pay attention to how information and technology can be wielded to improve the patient experience?

“None of the core functions can be sacrificed or neglected but the tyranny of the urgent can sometimes crush the vital,” he declared. “Are we seeking to transform or are we merely coping?”

Ross spoke from the heart with a mix of exhortation — aligned with the theme of the conference which seeks to elevate the health IT profession as true champions of health — and a big dose of self deprecation.

“So maybe you are thinking, ‘That poor guy with cancer. He looks terrible.’ No, I look this way all the time,” he obliged as the audience broke into laughter. “No, I didn’t lose my hair to cancer. This really handsome chemo-do is due to genetics. But along with a cancer cure, if there’s a health champion out there with a baldness cure, I am down for that.”

Later, on a more serious note, he reflected on the fact that he could be one among the 25-to-35- percent of cancer patients with his kind of cancer — he didn’t specify what kind — in whom the dreaded disease recurs even after beating it. Ross still needs surgical intervention — scheduled next month — to be cancer free, per his oncologists. But he repeated that the experience — while unsettling — has also been inspirational.

“I don’t recommend getting cancer as the best way to focus your career and gain personal clarity. But there are gifts from the most unpleasant and unwelcome of journeys,” he said. “I want to be a better CIO after this journey with more empathy, awareness and commitment. I’ve seen in profound new ways what works and what doesn’t and I am determined to deliver what’s needed.”

Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images

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