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AI, blockchain top healthcare CIO's list of emerging tech

In this Q&A, veteran healthcare CIO Geoffrey Brown talks about how his role has evolved, as well as why he's keeping an eye on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Geoffrey Brown was sure finance was where his career was headed, until his mother-in-law became ill. That's when he witnessed firsthand the "support and compassion" with which she was handled by the healthcare industry.

Brown, who had an IT career in banking, started volunteering with the same hospice program that helped his mother-in-law, until his involvement grew and he was eventually offered the position of healthcare CIO at Georgia Baptist, now Tenet Healthcare. Thirty-five years later, Brown is now CIO at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta where he said he plays an increasingly strategic role. That includes keeping an eye on technologies he thinks will have a significant impact on healthcare, specifically artificial intelligence and blockchain. 

In this Q&A, Brown discusses how the healthcare CIO role has changed from an organization's technical expert to leader of strategic initiatives, as well as what he thinks the CIO role will look like in the future.

How did you get your start in health IT?

Geoffrey Brown: I was already in the banking, finance industry, and that's where I thought I wanted to go. But my mother-in-law, who was a nurse, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a young husband, and my wife and I made a decision to do home hospice care, and that whole experience with the visiting nurse and the doctors that came and the network of clinicians that supported her was something new to me. I had never been around that kind of support and compassion and it affected me. After she passed away, I decided to become a hospice volunteer.

In the financial industry, we had access to all types of technology. I was a programmer, so I automated some of my reporting back then. The director of the hospice program asked if I could do some of that work for the hospice program and that was my entry point. Back then you had to write programs; you couldn't buy these systems off the shelf.

How has the role of healthcare CIO changed?

Brown: In the early days, you were probably the most knowledgeable person in your organization around any form of technology. How you were promoted back then and the way you rose up was by being someone who was capable of understanding the technology and working with engineers and the programming, network-type staff, yet able to translate information to the business teams and the operational staff in an effective manner. Fast forward a few years, and as technology became more intertwined with healthcare, the role shifted from being tactical to strategic. Now, you're in a more visionary, strategic, planning role and you have to be able to put teams together to execute on those visions, strategies and plans.

What challenges do healthcare CIOs face today?

Brown: There are three different areas that jump out to me. One is we've got to do things that ensure productivity, that we are bringing the right technologies into play to drive our services and provide consistency with how we formulate things -- from our clinical workflow processes, so that we have standardized processes that are repeatable, all the way through our revenue cycle for billing and collection. You have to stay current and make sure you're providing the latest access to systems and technologies for staff to be efficient in the work that they do.

The second area is around external threats. You hear people say cybersecurity, but I use the general term of security and protection of your digital assets. That's a big part of what we have to stay conversant with. We have to make sure we're following all of the right best practices and also getting ahead of that curve.

The third area is around the strategy component of it. You may hear terms like blockchain, AI and the ways those things are connecting and providing more efficient ways to manage care, to interact with the public, etcetera. We need to take a look at where we are, spend a fair amount of time in that space, and make sure we're positioned to empower our staff to be the best they can be around those types of things.

What technologies and trends do you put stock into? What are you keeping an eye on?

Brown: We spent a fair amount of time in previous years building up our data analytics and reporting capabilities. I think we are doing very well in that space, and we're starting to probe into predictive analytics. The analytics can only take you so far, and that's where the artificial intelligence kicks in. We are less mature in artificial intelligence, but the application for it is huge and that's where we're placing some future bets. Also in our call centers, AI has become so good in some areas … around routine types of things.

We are less mature in artificial intelligence, but the application for it is huge and that's where we're placing some future bets.
Geoffrey BrownCIO, Piedmont Healthcare

With blockchain, there have not been great applications for it in healthcare. But I predict there will be and it will certainly be around security … because of its ability to identify various elements, resources, definitions of use scenarios, which will allow you to match up people and data in ways that are more secure than current methodologies.

The third area, that quite frankly will always be there, are infrastructures associated with our cyber challenges.

What project have you led at Piedmont as healthcare CIO that you consider impactful?

Brown: During the five years I've been here, we've doubled the size of our organization through mergers and acquisitions. Part of that process required us to integrate those organizations into the Piedmont systems -- such as human resources systems, procurement and supply systems, financial systems, our electronic health record -- so we could make sure if a patient came into Piedmont that, as rapidly as possible, their information would be known throughout our system statewide. Our health system is spread out across the state, so it was critical from a strategic perspective to make sure we had [consistent] policies and practices, which talk about providing care depending on the condition a patient presents with and to make those things happen as quickly as possible. We've been able to successfully integrate the technology -- and, I think most importantly, the cultures -- in a very successful manner.

Where is the role of the healthcare CIO headed?

Brown: I find myself more and more at the front end of thinking about how do we grow the business, how do we get waste out of the business, and operations, how do we enable our markets in more effective ways. I do see it becoming more and more intertwined with the business of the organization. I see us moving deeper into spots around analytics, predictive modeling and those types of things so that we can manage our resources, anticipate patient needs more than we can today, and support our physicians around decision-making using data as a driver. I see the strategic piece becoming more and more important as time goes on.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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