Q&A with Level 3 Communications’ Executive

Karl Strohmeyer is group vice president of the North America Enterprise Sales at Level 3 Communications, Broomfield, Colo.  Recently, HIMSSwire sat down with Strohmeyer to talk about some of the challenges facing the healthcare industry.

HIMSSwire: What are the major challenges facing healthcare CIOs today?

Karl Strohmeyer: CIOs are now, more than ever before, facing some really big challenges.

To start, CIOs are being called upon to figure out how they can best leverage IT to succeed under government initiatives, such as the meaningful use incentive program, as well as healthcare reform. Then, there’s big data.  As healthcare organizations digitize more and more information, electronic data is growing at an exponential rate that no one ever predicted.  And this data must be turned into healthcare intelligence – to not only improve care but to understand population health and patient outcome metrics for payment reform.

All the while, though, privacy and security concerns have reached epic proportions as IT leaders need to come up with ways to keep all of this data safe, secure and accessible to care providers – a challenge that gets more difficult as more data goes digital and access requirements grow.

The great thing about all these challenges is that they provide CIOs with an opportunity to shine.  And, while it is an exciting time to be a healthcare CIO, it’s anything but easy.

HIMSSwire: With so many challenges, where should CIOs start?

Karl Strohmeyer: Based on our work with some of the largest healthcare companies in the U.S., I would recommend that CIOs focus on building the foundation that will enable them to evolve and help them leverage all the innovation available to the industry. You can’t build a house – whether it be a cottage or mansion – without a solid foundation. In information technology, you need a solid infrastructure.  Fortunately, many CIOs realize the importance of building that foundation. In fact, according to our recent survey of CIOs and other healthcare executives, 76 percent of respondents are planning to upgrade their network infrastructure in the next two years.

HIMSSwire: According to the HIMSS leadership survey, achieving meaningful use in the government’s EHR incentive program is still a top challenge facing healthcare organizations.  Why is it important to have a solid infrastructure in place to do so?

Karl Strohmeyer: The fact is that the federal government is looking to have 98 percent of healthcare providers transition to EHR systems by 2014. The good news is we’re getting there!  The move to electronic data means that organizational leaders must focus on how information is accessed and stored throughout the network. But not only are organizations being asked to create electronic records, soon they will also be required to share all of this information with one another.  Stage 2 and Stage 3 meaningful use requirements more explicitly demand that healthcare organizations share patient data with other organizations, as well as with patients.  As a result, organizations will need a high-bandwidth and low-latency global network that enables the fast, secure transport and backup of EHR data from radiology images to lab tests to medical history and billing information. With a network that can facilitate the sharing of records across medical facilities, healthcare providers can come one step closer to ensuring that patients receive the timeliest and the most informed care possible. The infrastructure is also critical for healthcare organizations to move forward with the implementation of mobile technologies, telehealth services and population analytics.

What’s more, the regulatory environment is continually changing. That’s why it is important for healthcare organizations to stay nimble with the ability to meet a constantly evolving set of requirements. A strong IT infrastructure gives organizations the flexibility they need to thrive in a changing world.

HIMSSwire: Interconnectivity has always been an issue in healthcare --- but with the move toward health information exchanges, it is becoming even more important.  What challenges does this present for IT leaders?

Karl Strohmeyer: The ultimate goal of automation efforts in the healthcare industry is to move data to the point where it is needed most -- into the hands of caregivers at the point of care. The challenge is daunting. Consider the following: Clinicians spend an average of 46 minutes per day waiting for patient information, according to a recent study from Imprivata, a security firm.

That adds up to a productivity loss of $900,000 per year for the typical hospital — or more than $5.1 billion annually across the health care industry, according to the study.

We are finally making some progress toward the long-talked-about digital nirvana. For a long time, organizations focused on merely getting data into a digital format. Now, the focus is shifting – and everyone is looking to share and leverage the data within and among organizations. As a result, health information exchanges (HIEs) are coming into play. HIEs allow the computing system from an emergency room at one hospital to communicate with the computing system of a pediatrician who works offsite, allowing information (like a medical record or scan) to be shared across the two systems in a seamless way in real time -- regardless of all the disparate technology involved. Without an HIE, the shared data would be indecipherable as it passed from one system to the next. But with an HIE, there are common languages that enable the sharing of critical patient information.