Lisa Emery, CIO, West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust
A few conversations I have been having recently have given me pause for thought. It is becoming widely acknowledged that the role of the CIO in healthcare is absolutely critical to lead the information and technology transformation of the NHS, so how are we going to make sure we have the right people in place now and into the future?
"Digital will transform the way we deliver care in the future, and it is critical that we invest in the development of world-class leaders to make this happen"
Within the NHS, it is a role that has evolved over time. Forward-looking organisations have recognised the need to transition from the more technically-focussed IT Director, to a CIO with strategic and transformational leadership skills, and a seat at the executive table.
As a consequence, it is not something for which there is a defined career path, at present.
Unsurprisingly therefore on speaking to my peers in the NHS about their route to CIO, many have ‘fallen’ into the role over time, and via various routes, including conversion from the IT Director position, or in many instances via diverse scientific, operational and commercial careers. The ability to lead transformational change is something we either inherently possess, or have acquired on our career ‘journey’.
Of course it is often this varied career background and well-rounded set of skills that contribute so well to the ever-increasing demands of the role. So—does it actually matter that there is not really a clearly defined path to becoming a healthcare CIO, or should we be putting something more formal in place and actively ‘selling’ the role to aspiring leaders?
Consider the education system, for example. Early-years courses seem to have more of an emphasis on coding and more technical skills. Having spent some time recently conducting mock job interviews with teenagers undertaking science and technology courses at a local college, I was impressed with how driven and focussed they were. Virtually all I spoke to described their aspirations in terms of very specific careers, such as dentistry, medical engineering and ophthalmology. Although referencing an avid interest in technology, none really talked about the bigger picture in terms of changing the way people work and deliver care.
Reflecting after the event, it further solidified my view that at the moment, becoming a CIO in healthcare seems more like a journey than an intended destination. And I think we need to do more to develop and support future leaders, both formally and informally.
Today’s CIO needs to be a transformational and strategic thinker, with a broad knowledge base (and a thick skin!). To achieve success you need to be a great communicator, able to understand the broad needs of the business and translate from technical terms to real benefits.
For me, these are skills we can spot early, and nurture. It doesn’t mean losing that sense of excitement about the technology, but is about being able to take that and bring people along with you in terms of how it can transform the way they work, to the benefit of their patients.
Happily, there are lots of great role models out there, actively engaging and sharing their experience widely and keen to provide mentorship to aspiring leaders. And this month, the first cohort will attend the NHS Digital Academy, a year-long course set up to develop a new generation of digital leaders to drive the information and technology transformation of the NHS. Created in response to Professor Robert Wachter’s Making IT Work report, it is clear that “Investing in the people tasked with making technology work in the NHS is as important as investing in the technology itself”. I couldn’t agree more.
Digital will transform the way we deliver care in the future, and it is critical that we invest in the development of world-class leaders to make this happen.