Q&A with Asst. Vice President John Hamm: The Unique Mission of Healthcare IT

By Zach Donisch, Director of Membership, AEHIT, AEHIS, AEHIA

John, tell me about yourself.

I’ve been in IT for almost 25 years. I started out at the age of 18 – recruited out of high school, and began a career with Electronic Data Systems (EDS); it was a global consulting firm at that time. From there, I spent time in leadership roles within Fortune 500 companies my entire career. In that time, my career has been split between cybersecurity, infrastructure, global ERP systems, custom development, and data analytics. I’ve worked in various industries, including chemical manufacturing & distribution, oil and gas upstream, and healthcare. My time as CTO at Texas Children’s has been my first couple of years in healthcare. In the midst of my career, I did go back to school and got a BS in MIS and MBA minor in Finance. 

Tell me more about your transition from high school student to IT professional?

When I was 15 years old, I started helping my grandmother’s real estate brokerage firm. I would get calls from her real estate agents who needed help with their computers. Helping out at my grandmother’s firm was a nice reward – I felt like I knew something unique that could help others in need. I felt really good having solved a problem for someone.

I grew up in poverty, and when I got out of high school I wasn’t thinking about college, or really understood college as an option at the time. I started looking for jobs and was hired by EDS as a data entry analyst. Three months into my new position, I met a field service supervisor who ended up hiring me onto EDS’s General Motors Consistent Office Environment (COE) project That’s how I got my start in the IT industry.

What are some differences in healthcare information technology that you hadn’t experienced in other industries?

I’d have to say the major difference between healthcare and other industries is the mission. In other industries, conversations were more focused on manufacturing and distribution, environmental, health, & safety, and  revenue & margin. The focus was on shareholder value or ownership rewards. These challenges tend to organize the priority funnel differently. 

In healthcare, at organizations like Texas Children’s, the end goal is to provide access to quality and safe care, while providing the best patient & employee experience. Only after those key priorities do you begin to consider what other industries consider vital. Yes, the financials are important, but it’s secondary to the mission.

Keeping in mind the need to prioritize and control projects with a wide scope, how much involvement do you have with your Project Management Office?

I work closely with the CIO, PMO IS Director, and leaders across the organization to assure the most critical priorities are completed on time and on budget. It is an ongoing process to evaluate and educate leadership groups and committees within the hospital system so we can make sure our outcomes are meaningful to meet Texas Children’s goals and mission.

What are you and the Texas Children’s IT team doing in 2018 that’s helping to push the envelope of healthcare IT?

Texas Children’s leadership is focused on providing a great digital experience organization-wide, including our patient’s ability to easily gain access to care services. Once the patient is in the hospital or system, we use technology to assist providing the best care coordination focusing on quality and experience.

There is a lot of conversation around data; data usage, data availability, data definitions, and how to operate leveraging data.   IT is responding to the increased demand for data, as well as the process in which new medical devices are activated further creating more data points. We are shifting from designing and implementing specific solutions to enabling platforms and capabilities that enable and connect the organization.

Our specific evolution towards digital starts with the infrastructure and includes critical focus points in 2018:

  1. Transforming the data center by consolidated nine data centers down to two. This includes activating 10% workload in the cloud and establishing consumable services.
  2. Defining our edge device strategy. We’ve made organizational changes that centralized our network, telecom and platform engineering capabilities . The team is doing a great job rethinking how devices are engineered and the device’s purpose in a given space.
  3. Educating the organization on how to think about consumption of technology services, such as the data center and edge device technologies.

How do you see the role of technology leaders changing as healthcare technology evolves?

I think it goes back to what we talked about in the last question – the focus on information technology cannot be limited to specific solutions. The digital leader of the future must understand how technology platforms and capabilities restrict or enable their own digital transformation, and then invest in building them so that the organization and the organization’s customers – patients – experience superior value.

An example of this goes back to our data center transformation. Our technologists have preferences around different types of infrastructure technology – storage, compute, load balancers, DR replication, etc. While all of that is important, we kept one word across the top of our project – simplicity. We reduced our data center down to about four key vendors. There may have been additional features from other vendors, but because we simplified the environment, we realized we had the flexibility and capability for elasticity and extendibility. All of this helped reduce complexity and cost across our infrastructure.

In short, leaders have to stop thinking about specific solutions, and instead consider how they create platforms and capabilities to launch into a new digital age of healthcare IT. 

What’s your feeling on Cloud computing?

Cloud offers capabilities in different ways that we have considered in the past.  I often debate whether private data centers will move to the cloud fully.  I believe there’s a longer term place for private data center, especially in a highly regulated environment.  The technology market continues to figure out how to match or beat the cost of cloud computing in interesting ways. I do believe cloud offers an option for newer technology capabilities faster. Cloud is a good choice to launch new ideas into quickly and if successful, then you can make a decision if you want to port the capability back into your data center for longer term financial viability.

What’s a good book you’d recommend to leaders in healthcare IT?

The founding of Zappos – it’s my favorite book and I’ve read it twice. It’s called “Delivering Happiness, a Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose” by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh.

The book is fabulous and describes how Hsieh founded Zappos. My favorite part of the story is when Tony is on the cusp of losing his money and he’s depressed, but he throws a party. During the party, a smoke machine causes the fire alarm to go off. The authorities come and shut down the party, and afterwards he’s bummed out and just staring out his window. One of his friends, who stuck around, comes up to him and asks, “Why are you so bummed?” Obliviously he’s bummed because the party felt like a flop, but his friend says, “Look at the experience you created for everyone here. It was the best party ever.” That scene is the genesis for Tony Hsieh launching an online shoe store focused on the customer experience.

I remember that part in particular because through technology we play a lead role in defining the experience, and there’s no better place to do it than within a healthcare system. 


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