RED HOT Contributors


Why We All Need To Think Bigger


Russell Branzell, President & CEO, CHIME

If you’ve been a part of CHIME for the past few years, you may have noticed a trend. The organization doesn’t want you to be comfortable. They want you to be open to organizational growth, to realize your role is changing, and to get out of your comfort zone and talk to other organizations. And in fact, one of the key goals with the upcoming CHIME Fall Forum is to encourage attendees to challenging their thinking. In “Leadership from the Edge,” a new offering, presenters are being encouraged to throw out difficult topics and “get people thinking” says CEO and President Russell Branzell. Gone are the days of just patting each other on the back—although it’s important to acknowledge the work leaders have done to advance the industry (and there will be some of that), it’s critical to continue to strive for better.

In this interview, Branzell opens up about CHIME’s growth during the past few years, what he believes have been the most positive changes, and how the organization is balancing the need for growth while also staying true to its mission. He also talks about the discussions he hopes to see happen at the Fall Forum, and why this year is all about giving back.

Gamble:  Hi Russ, thank you as always for taking some time to speak with about some of the things going on with CHIME. There’s always a lot to talk about — including the upcoming Fall Forum in San Antonio. Before we get into that, however, I wanted to talk about the educational track CHIME presented at the recent Georgia HIMSS Annual Conference.

Branzell:  Sure. And that’s something we’ve done in the past. In the last four years, I’ve been invited to close to a dozen state-based events. The difference with this particular event is that this time, they asked us to put together a four-session track. We’re happy to do it. One reason is because there’s always going to be a segment of health IT executives that aren’t big travelers. They’re not going to head off to the annual HIMSS conference in the spring, or CHIME’s event in the fall. They generally stay within their state. And the more we can get our content out and get them the education they need — especially since we have so many certified CIOs who are looking to get verification credits and keep that current — we have to go do where they are.

Gamble:  Another thing I wanted to talk about is the recent announcement CHIME is partnering with DirectTrust to ensure secure data exchange. Can you talk about that?

Branzell:  Sure. And I want to state that this isn’t an exclusive partnership. We’ve already been using DirectTrust’s network; this is an opportunity to provide better education and to collaborate on how we can better leverage the technology. Obviously, we still have relationships with state and other HIEs. This made sense because it’s the only federally mandated exchange. And although it has a limited scope now, with our large base of members — who own thousands of directed addresses — we think that can change.

We’re always trying to meet our members’ needs more effectively, and one of the questions they’ve asked is whether this is a better way to exchange on a national basis in a secure way. And so, we’re in the process of exploring that. There are no clear answers, but we believe this is a good partnership opportunity. If nothing else, it’ll help us understand the industry better, and hopefully help improve interoperability.

Gamble:  Right, I know that’s one of CHIME’s main objectives. And in fact, we had a webinar recently where Liz Johnson (CIO, Acute Care Hospitals and Applied Clinical Informatics, Tenet Healthcare) and Brian Patty, MD (CMIO, Rush University Medical Center) talked about the challenges in achieving interoperability. It’s clear that interoperability is a real passion for Liz, as well as the movement for a national patient identifier. Can you talk about what it has meant for CHIME having Liz Johnson as the Board Chair?

Branzell:  Of course. It’s amazing to think about all the Board Chairs we’ve had since I started as CEO in 2013. Each one is unique and has their own passions, but they all blend into the direction of where CHIME is headed. Liz is particularly unique coming from a nursing informatics background, which is something we’ve never really had. With her dual role at Tenet, where she does informatics as well as the CIO role, she really brings a passion for patient care.

The other thing is that she and I have known each other for at least 20 years, which has been really great. And in fact, since 2013, every one of the chairs has been a longtime colleague and friend, and that breaks down the barrier of having a ‘new boss,’ so to speak. If Liz doesn’t like something, she’s honest with me, and vice versa. In the beginning of the year, we made a commitment to move past any superficiality and to just be blunt if there’s something that we believe can be done better. Our one-on-one meetings and our time together is all about betterment for our members, betterment for the industry, better partnerships for the industry, better service, and identifying where we can make a difference.

She wants to make a big impact, and I think that’s a common theme with every chair we’ve had; that this is their year and their chance to do everything possible to make a big impact for our members and for the industry. Liz is definitely cut from that stone.

Gamble:  Since you became CEO of CHIME in 2013, the organization has seen quite a bit of growth. What do you think has been the most positive change?

Branzell:  It boils down to what’s most important about CHIME, and that is to continue our legacy of creating a great environment for collaboration, networking, and professional development. And while we want to stay true to the roles of each organization, we feel it’s important to be open to growth. The industry has changed, and CHIME has changed, and some may not like that. We used to be focused on hospital-based CIOs, but now there are many roles we need to consider that are CIO-related, whether it’s medical groups, long-term care, nursing homes, rehab hospitals, and even payers. It’s now become a continuum that organizations are trying to grapple with, and it’s important to have all of those individuals at the table. I think it adds to the diversity of the role, as well as the diversity of the organization, which I’m happy to see.

If you look at the makeup of the board and the makeup of the organization, it really is an effort by everyone from our Educational Foundation to the CHIME Foundation to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all of our members.

But there are some that may need special attention to get them to where they need to be, and we’re trying to address that — for example, with our diversity initiative. These are board-level initiatives led by individuals with great passion to do the right thing for the industry.

In terms of growth, we’ve definitely expanded internationally, but I think that’s part and parcel to what I’ve said before, which is that the problems we all face — regardless of community, economic system, political system or healthcare — are pretty much the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re the NHS in England or a fragmented system of India or a very government controlled in Singapore — the problems of IT and informatics are the same. We’ve grown a lot internationally for the very reason that if we can learn from each other globally, maybe we can accelerate positive change.

Gamble:  Do you think we’ll start to see more of an international presence at the events like the upcoming fall forum?

Branzell:  I do. And in fact, there are quite a few scholarship applicants from other countries who will be attending this year. For some it’s a long haul and very expensive, but we think it will be worth it. And I think we’re going to start to see that more and more.

The difference now, though, is they don’t have to because we do a lot of events where we go to them. And it may not always be me, or [CHIME EVP & COO] Keith Fradenburg, or one of our core faculty, but we bring CHIME content and CHIME curriculum to many events now. I just got back from Singapore where we did a security summit in addition to Asia Pac and met with a lot of our members from the region. They were very appreciative that we’re able to bring executive-level programming to them.


Gamble:  And as far as this year’s Fall Forum, one new thing I noticed was Leadership from the Edge, which seems like an interesting way to approach a range of topics in shorter segments. 

Branzell:  Absolutely. It’s our attempt to address one of a key concern of our members. Everyone is saying the industry is changing, and they’re being challenged directly. So we figured, let’s throw out some really hard topics and some really challenging mindsets — because it isn’t just about making sure there’s a financial and clinical system running and the stresses that come with that, which are very real and very applicable. It’s also what can we do to really make a big impact across a bigger front. It will be interesting to see how this goes.

In all three of those sessions, we’re going to tell our speakers to be very provocative in challenging the group and challenging the status quo. And not everyone is going to agree with that, which is fine. Some of the best speakers I’ve ever seen or heard are not ones that I necessarily agreed with, but who challenged my thinking. I think it’s important to do that.


Gamble:  It sounds like it’s going to be a great event. I noticed one of the keynote speakers is an expert on blockchain. There aren’t too many organizations that are doing it, at least on a large scale, but there seems to be a lot of interest in the topic.

Branzell:  Very much. Nobody really understands it, and honestly, at first it seemed like geek speak to me. But when I watched the video of Don Tapscott (co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institution), who the committee had suggested as a speaker, and I finally got it. I said, ‘get this guy as fast as you can.’

All of our speakers come from very different angles, and that’s deliberate. It’s what our members want, and it’s what they need. This is a time of great challenge and stress for our industry. It’s not enough just to think about technology; we have to think about humanistic attitudes. In addition to Don Tapscott, we’ll have Abraham Verghese, a best-selling author who’ll talk about the marriage of technological innovation with the traditional doctor-patient relationship, and Kelly McGonigal, who will share strategies to support personal well-being and strengthen communities. I think it’s going to be a great program.


Gamble:  Anything else you want people to know about the upcoming Forum?

Branzell:  One thing we’re really emphasizing — and we did this last year as well — is to offer charitable activities and opportunities to give back. We’re looking to turn the .38 Special concert into a benefit to raise some money for Hurricane relief, both in Texas and Florida.

All proceeds from the CHIME17 Annual Golf Outing and the Fun Run for Charity will go toward Direct Relief USA, and we’re also working with Dress for Success and Career Gear of San Antonio, which helps women and men who need assistance as they begin their professional journeys. We want this event to be about giving back.


Gamble:  That’s great to hear. I’m sure you’ll get a lot of interest from people who want to help out.

Branzell:  We hope so. There people who are still really hurting from the devastation of the hurricanes, and we want to do everything we can.


Gamble:  Definitely. Well, thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing you in San Antonio!

Branzell:  Thank you.

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