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From Physician to CIO: How One Man's Journey Reflects IT Transformation

By Mandy Roth  
   August 29, 2019

Fairview Health Services' new CIO, Sameer Badlani, MD, shares insights about the changing role of IT leaders and the dynamics at play behind the scenes.

As the healthcare industry is transformed by the force of technology, the role of information technology leaders is also changing, requiring adaptive skills to build bridges with an organization's strategic clinical, innovation, and patient experience initiatives. The new chief information officer (CIO) at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis is a reflection of this phenomenon; Sameer Badlani, MD, FACP, was a physician before his career took what he calls a "serendipitous" turn into biomedical informatics.

While Badlani stepped into the CIO role last April at the nonprofit health system—which operates 12 hospitals and medical centers, including the University of Minnesota Medical Center—it was not his first foray into information technology. He previously served as chief health information officer (CHIO) and system vice president of enterprise data management/analytics at Sutter Health in Sacramento, California; CHIO at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City; and associate chief medical information officer (CMIO) at University of Chicago Medical Center (now called UChicago Medicine and comprises the medical center). He studied biomedical informatics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Before that, Badlani worked as an internal medicine physician, and received his medical degree from Delhi University/University College of Medical Sciences

A discussion with Badlani about his career evolution, current responsibilities, and focus reveals deeper insights into the changing role of information technology leaders and the dynamics that are influencing that transformation. Part one, Physician CIO: 'I Refuse to Fall in Love with Technology', explores the relationship between IT and innovation; this article focuses on Badlani's personal journey and his perspectives about the changing role of CIOs. Badlani's comments have been lightly edited for space and clarity.

HealthLeaders: How has your career evolved?

Badlani: I often tell people I was four years old when my mother started brainwashing me to become a doctor. That was always an expectation of me. As I grew, I became quite comfortable with the notion of becoming a doctor and pursued [it] as a singular aim during my school years. When I became a doctor and practiced a little bit in India, I subconsciously started noticing operational inefficiencies, challenges in information flow, and the mistakes that would happen in spite of a team trying their best to provide care for a lot of patients. I used to think, "Wouldn't it be great if we had some tools or methodologies to help us?"

I came to United States about 20 years ago, initially to focus on bioengineering. I quickly realized I was not designed for bench research and discovered the whole field of medical informatics. That was serendipity in the sense that more than me finding my future calling, it found me. Something that drives me is that every patient should receive the best possible care that the physician team is capable of, and technology plays a strong part in enabling that.

HL: How has your background as a physician help prepare you for the role you're in today?

Badlani: While I no longer actively see patients, I still consider myself a physician. This role is an extension of my clinical professional life. The joy of practice for me now is that if I deploy a technology, a process change, or a plan successfully, it enables the clinician and a clinical team to support a large number of patients. I see this job as an opportunity to affect the lives of many more patients than I would have been able to in my clinical practice, which was focused on internal medicine for transplant patients and solid organ tumor patients. That was very intense, very satisfying, but the way I see it, this has more scale.

It's hard for me to say if being a physician makes me a better CIO than somebody who's not. I say that genuinely because I worked with spectacular CIOs. Honestly, somebody like Eric Yablonka, who was the CIO when I was at University of Chicago Medicine and is now the CIO at Stanford Health Care, truly inspired me to the potential of a role like this. I'm still learning, and he's at the peak of his career.

The way I approach my role is that my physician hat always forces me to think, "How will this make a patient's life better?" Having practiced medicine for almost a couple of decades also makes me think about how [an initiative] affects a clinical care team's life. My job is not only to support patient care, but also employee engagement and the employee's work life. Both are interconnected in so many ways.

I don't do technology for the sake of technology. You'll find a lot of successful CIOs think like that—to look at technology as an enabler of safe, high quality, and efficient care—all three are important.

HL: Are there opportunities in your current position to have an impact on that particular dynamic?

Badlani: I'm trying to push the concept of dual transformation. I did not come up with that concept [which is based on the "seminal" work of experts at Harvard]. How I have translated it for myself is, you have to build resiliency into any business. In the healthcare business that's especially needed because of so many external factors that are challenging us—big tech coming into healthcare, patients starting to behave as consumers, and economic challenges where the cost of healthcare delivery keeps going up, and the margins keep shrinking.

It is a challenging environment; however, it does allow for executives to focus their minds and energies and do what's right. For me, that gets divided into two domains: One is reinvention, and the second is reimagination.

Reinvention speaks to the notion that I still have to do whatever I do today, but I need to do it differently. We can't deliver services the way we used to. It's as if you're trying to lose weight; you can't do it by eating the same diet or following the same exercise protocol that hasn't worked. [We also need to] reimagine our value proposition from just being a traditional provider of acute and follow-up care, to everything associated with health, wellness, and clinical care.

The reinvention of how we deliver value today is the starting point. That creates bandwidth, opportunity, and a mindset that allows us to reimagine our value proposition and create resiliency to survive into the next few decades as healthcare providers and payers. It cannot come without reinventing the way we deliver our services today because otherwise, both desires will be in direct conflict with each other.

HL: Is it unusual for a CIO to also be a physician?

Badlani: To have a physician serve as the CIO of a large health system is not super common, but it is not rare. For example, one of my esteemed colleagues, Chris Longhurst, MD, is a physician and CIO of UC San Diego Health. It's not an overwhelming majority, but it's starting to be a little more common.

HL: You've served as a CMIO, CHIO, and now CIO. How are the roles different?

Badlani: They're an extension of each other. The roles are different in scope and responsibility, but my success as a CMIO was dependent on the partnership with the CIO. The same thing when I was a CHIO at Intermountain and when I was the CHIO and chief data analytics officer at Sutter Health. Now, as the CIO, I'm dependent on highly functioning CHIOs and CMIOs.

The other thing that I have appreciated in my past roles, and that continues in the current role, is the ability to influence strategy and drive the innovation mindset of the organization.

I truly believe that CHIOs and CMIOs have this wonderful opportunity to take the perception of information services from a utility provider to truly an enabler of healthcare. Also, I'm thankfully starting to see in my own organization and in other businesses across the world where the CIO is also seen as a copilot for strategy and a business growth. That's the role that I believe CIOs need to embrace and skill themselves up for. It causes us to think differently about our role. How you bring about change management and adoption of technology are early goals, but in many ways, I spend as much time as I can afford thinking about how my choices around technology, deployment, and rationalization can lead us to becoming a more agile competitor in the healthcare market.

“My physician hat always forces me to think, 'How will this make a patient's life better?'”

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: HealthLeaders


To provide value, CIOs should "copilot" organizational strategy and business growth.

Reinvention and reimagination may be necessary to build resiliency into the business of healthcare.

The role of the CIO is to not only to support patient care, but also improve the work life of providers. Both are interconnected, says Badlani.

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