Q&A with CIO Ryan Smith, Part 2: “We Need to Start Thinking About Vendors in a New Light.”

By | August 20, 2020

Ryan Smith, CIO, Intermountain Healthcare

When Ryan Smith first started as a software engineer at Intermountain Healthcare, he probably wouldn’t have guessed he’d come back one day as CIO. But he did aspire to become someone who could “influence the direction of technology,” just as Larry Grandia (the organization’s first CIO) had. And he knew that attaining a leadership role at a “pioneering institution” like the Utah-based health system wasn’t possible without the right experience.

And so he went to work, taking on roles that enabled him to learn as much as possible about the industry while developing his skills as a leader. It was that experience, Smith said in a recent interview, which helped prepare him to step in as CIO at Intermountain, a role that “feels like coming home.”


[Click here to read or listen to Part 1]

Key Takeaways:

  • Evolving CIO role. A solid knowledge of IT is no longer enough; today’s CIOs must have “a fundamental business understanding of the transformation happening in our industry.”
  • Rethinking vendor partnerships. If healthcare organizations want to succeed, the focus must be on forming relationships with vendors, rather than trying to “eek out every pound of flesh.”
  • Filling Marc Probst’s shoes. When succeeding someone as well-respected as Marc Probst, the goal isn’t to try to fill his shoes, but rather to “continue the great work he has done” while bringing a new perspective to opportunities and challenges.
  • Maintaining the momentum. If IT wants to continue to be seen as an influencer, leaders need to maintain the partnerships that have been established across the organization, and “make sure we’re doing all we can from an IT perspective to support this incredibly important mission.”

Q&A with Ryan Smith, CIO, Intermountain Healthcare, Part 2

Gamble:  When you look at how the CIO role has evolved, we’re seeing more emphasis on having strong relationships with business and clinical leaders, as well as vendors. What are your thoughts on that?

Smith:  I think for CIOs in healthcare today, a fundamental business understanding of the transformation happening in our industry is crucial. Understanding payment reform and understanding what’s happening coming down from the federal government in terms of quality measures and requirements is crucial. This industry is under intense pressure to transform itself. For CIOs to be relevant, you have to understand that, and you need to be able to partner with business and clinical leaders across the organization; to not just a glorified ticket taker as the rest of the organization comes up with strategies, but to be an integral part of that strategic decision-making process. CIOs need to help other executives across the company and board members understand the opportunities that we have to leverage data and technology to drive our growth strategies, to drive cost management initiatives, and to drive quality and operational outcome improvements, and ultimately, our patient and consumer experiences.

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Technology and data are going to have such a massive impact on all of those things. It’s my job and it’s my team’s job to help enable the rest of the business to take full advantage of what those things can offer, as well as our own initiatives to transform ourselves.

You mentioned vendors. I’m a big believer of having fewer but more strategic vendor partnerships, and I don’t use the word ‘partnership’ loosely or lightly. It’s really crucial for realizing this equation of 1 plus 1 equals 3, or 4, or 5 to be able to take advantage of what both organizations have to offer, around what our mission is really trying to accomplish. I’ve learned that if you can partner with the right vendors, they can do a lot to help you advance in a rapid manner, versus trying to build and integrate all of this technology and data ourselves. I find that to be key.

Gamble:  Have you seen an evolution in the interactions between IT leaders and vendors over the years?

Smith:  I have. I’ve actually taken that almost on a mentoring aspect, both with my own leaders, and in consulting other CIOs and IT leaders across the industry to start thinking about vendors in a new light. For far too long, we have viewed vendors in this master-servant type of relationship where they’re here to serve us, and we’re just there to try to eek out every pound of flesh cost-wise that we can out of them. That doesn’t translate into a healthy relationship.

A true partnership must be mutually beneficial to both parties involved — that takes time and effort to be able to do that. Quite frankly, not every healthcare organization out there is well suited to be a great partner to vendors, and not every vendor out there is well suited to be a great partner to the clients they serve. It really does take a bit of a dance to discover those relationships where not only do they have the right technology, but they have the ability to partner in a meaningful way.

Gamble:  You spent quite a while at Intermountain earlier in your career. What was it that made you interested in this role and in coming back to the organization?

Smith:  Sure. I joined Intermountain 26 years ago as a fledgling software engineer. Actually, I was still a senior at the University of Utah studying computer science when I started. I remember to this day how Larry Grandia, Intermountain’s first CIO, was able to inspire leaders and inspire his staff around this common vision for how data and IT systems could deliver this promise of advancing clinical quality and outcomes in our industry. Intermountain is the pioneering institution around a clinical decision support and leveraging IT systems and data to improve outcomes and quality.

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I remember watching Larry as he operated both within our organization and on a national stage, and thinking to myself how great it would be to have that type of influence and be able to function at that level, and to influence the direction of technology the way he did. That’s always been a huge inspiration to me in my personal career development, and in the path I’ve tried to pursue. And realistically, that resulted in my needing to leave the organization for a while and assuming the CIO reins elsewhere and to get that experience. It was always a dream of mine to be able to function at that type of level at Intermountain Healthcare, and so you can imagine how excited I am to come home and to work with the fantastic leadership team we have here at Intermountain, which has been so supportive of what we’re trying to do and is progressive in terms of the strategic agenda. I’m just really excited to be able to align and partner around the vision and the mission of Intermountain Healthcare.

Gamble:  Right. Intermountain certainly has a reputation of being a forward-thinking organization, particularly in terms of innovation. I think that’s starting to catch on more in the industry.

Smith:  No doubt about it. Intermountain has been an innovative pioneer in so many ways. You see that with some of the different joint ventures and relationships we have and businesses we’ve helped build. It’s exciting to be able to be part of that again and to help bring some of my experience from outside of Intermountain to bear in helping to support those initiatives. I’m really humbled and excited for the opportunity.

Gamble:  Had you been in touch with [former Intermountain CIO] Marc Probst before starting the role?

Smith:  Absolutely. Marc and I go back a long time. I worked for him for nine years at Intermountain, much of that as a direct report. He’s a great mentor, a great leader, and a great friend. We collaborated quite a bit while I was at Banner Health, and we continued to keep in touch while I was with Health Catalyst. He’s going to be missed; obviously he leaves some pretty big shoes to fill, both within Intermountain as well as on the national health IT stage. I hope to be able to continue a lot of the great work that Mark has already started and help oversee that while trying to bring my own perspective to some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I look forward to keeping in touch with Marc as we move forward.

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Gamble:  During the pandemic, there has been an increased awareness of the value that IT teams provide. I wanted to get your thoughts on whether that can continue going forward; what that’s going to require.

Smith:  During my 26-year career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a short period of time during which IT and the IT organization has had such a huge and positive influence our industry, than what we’ve seen in the last 4 or 5 months. I’ve seen new levels of partnership and collaboration between IT leaders and their teams with frontline clinicians and clinician leaders, supply chain leaders, HR leaders, and so on. We’ve seen this rapid transformation where an industry that has historically been relatively conservative in allowing people to work remotely, suddenly have a huge swing of people working from home, out of necessity. That has required huge partnerships between technology, HR and operational leaders. You look at all of the technology supporting telehealth and virtual visits that are supporting frontline caregivers to be able to do their work. They need to be able to do that from home as well.

You look at the relationships to leverage data and analytics to support supply chain operations and finance and other areas that are trying to forecast supply levels and all the automation and everything else that needs to happen, and it’s just amazing.

To answer your question, it’s going to mean a continued partnership up and down the line of clinical and business leaders, all the way down to frontline team members and caregivers, to help make sure we’re doing all we can from an IT perspective to support this incredibly important mission. They’re in such a difficult environment right now; anything we can do to help propel what they’re doing service-wise for our patients and other community members — that’s what it’s all about. I’m incredibly optimistic about the role that the IT organization is playing right now, and will play well into the future. I’m excited.