Q&A with next HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf: 'Absolute gap' between IT vendors, providers

It’s been quite a long time since anyone except Stephen Lieber was been president and CEO of The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), but he’ll soon be handing over the reins after 17 years to Harold “Hal” Wolf III, an alum of Kaiser Permanente and the Chartis Group as well as a HIMSS board member.

Wolf is scheduled to start at HIMSS on Sept. 1, with Lieber’s last day set to be Sept. 15, according to HIMSS. He’ll be working out of Denver with a “strong presence” in the organization’s main headquarters in Chicago.

Ahead of his official start date, Wolf spoke with Clinical Innovation & Technology for a two-part interview. In Part 1, he discussed taking over the role from such a long-serving leader, what he hopes to bring to the role and how to bridge the divide between vendors and providers unhappy with their IT products.

Clinical Innovation & Technology: You’ve got some big shoes to fill taking over for Stephen Lieber. Having worked with him at HIMSS, how big of an impact has he had on both the organization and the health IT industry in general?

Harold “Hal” Wolf III: HIMSS is Steve and Steve has been HIMSS over the last 17 years. We’ve seen the organization grow from a small group of extremely dedicated into an international organization that is influential on multiple continents and countries and that influence continues to grow. That was all done under Steve’s leadership. I’ve had the honor of working with Steve for four years—two as an advisor to the board of directors and two on it. He and I have traveled the world at different times together and had many a conversation. Each time, I learned something and gained a different perspective.

His impact has been profound. Healthcare IT has been a focal point of the healthcare industry for many reasons and the role HIMSS has played—beyond the standards of interoperability and cybersecurity and the other components they focus on in policy—but just as a convener, as a facilitator, as a place where people can exchange best practices and develop thought leadership and hear thought leadership, this is a tremendous role HIMSS plays globally and this organization has grown under Steve’s leadership.

I actually sent him a note last week, to be perfectly frank, and started off by saying “So, this is what it feels like to follow Bear Bryant or John Wooden.” You know, how do you do that? I have nothing but great admiration for Steve.

What about your own experience—from Kaiser to Chartis or earlier CIO roles—what do you think best prepared you for this high-profile role?

I’ve been very fortunate through the years to have high-profile opportunities to contribute to health IT, everywhere from being CIO in in the initial stages of development all the way through to thinking about large-scale systems. Not just at Kaiser, but the NHS, Australia, Denmark, full end-to-end country developments, thinking about the impact both information and technology have on daily lives and all the way up through policy and how you bring that forward.

I hope to bring an international perspective. I hope to bring an operational perspective, and I hope to bring and expand relationships on a clinical prospective and on the provider side. We’re moving from an age of the IT, which is a critical part of HIMSS’ identity, and we need to think about in terms of information and technology. With all the investments that have gone into IT, it’s how you use the information and how you bring that to bear at the clinical level, the consumer level, the patient level and the administrative level. I think that’s the next phase we’re moving towards and I hope my experience will lend to that, both my domestic and international experience.

Does interoperability remain the big obstacle to getting to that next phase?

I wouldn’t say it is by itself. If you’re not going putting in cybersecurity as part of interoperability, you would be making a mistake. The reality is one has to complement the other for very obvious reasons. If I’m creating an environment where information can, will and needs to be exchanged—not just in bulk, but transactionally as well, in order to get the right information to the right person or clinician at the right time—it has to be done in a secure manner. I think it’s a critical dependency. It’s a critical focal point of HIMSS and the industry as a whole. Think about any critical use of technology, use of information, whether it’s in the home, whether it’s in an ICU, a hospital bed, a regular, whether it’s on your device, interoperability and security have to go hand in hand.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard in the industry is the disconnect between IT vendors and healthcare providers. Providers say the products they’re getting still aren’t making their jobs easier and vendors believe providers are more satisfied and comfortable with their EHRs than they really are. What can you do at HIMSS to bridge this gap?

First of all, it’s an absolute gap. It’s a gap I’ve experienced in my career. Ninety percent of the time these are incredibly bright individuals, they don’t fall into these jobs, they get there because they’re smart, creative people. They’re always looking at the information that’s available to them, no matter how good it may be in that exact moment, and they’re taking it a step further and saying “If I have this, couldn’t I have that?” and “If I have this at this speed, what could I do if I had it a little bit faster?” I think there’s a constant creative element that has people learn what they have and they want to make it better, more precise, more applicable.

Getting to the gist of your question, we can get embedded into the provider community, deeper than we even are now, and be the place where the CMIO goes and the chief clinical officer goes. They are dependent upon the information. We have to continue to grow to be an organization that the provider looks up to and can say “I need this information to my job.” And we have to translate that to, convene, facilitate, as HIMSS has always done, to the manufacturers and suppliers that this is what they’re looking for.

There’s always been a translation piece between the more clinical space and the service space, of the IT shop, the application and the capability, and we’re a part of that exchange and proudly so. The more we can facilitate that with the provider community, the more effective the use of information will be and of course, the information is enabled through the technology. This is a great point and it’s one of the first priorities that I have.

Hal Wolf’s conversation with Clinical Innovation & Technology will continue in Part 2.