Emerging Professionals: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

This article is part of a series of COACH eHIP: Emerging Health Informatics Professionals Forum interviews exploring career paths, industry trends and hot topics for EPs who are in the first five years of their health informatics (HI) careers.

Now pursuing my first real full-time employment in the eHealth industry, I have been interested in hearing my colleagues’ views about following diverse, yet successful career paths “Right Here, Right Now” in eHealth. It is no secret that the field is interdisciplinary and many professionals in the industry come from different academic backgrounds and careers. It is this diverse collaboration, exemplified by the differences in the dynamic careers of interviewees Kevin McConomy and Karen Martin, which is the epitome of excellent career pathways in the HI work industry regardless of public or private sectors.

Kevin McConomy
A Journey from Engineering to HI
Originally an Engineer, Kevin McConomy is currently the Director at Online Business Systems for the public sector, Eastern US and Canada.

Tell us your story and what you led you to eHealth and health informatics.
I graduated with a BSc in Civil Engineering back in the 80s. It was the opportunity to specialize that drove me into engineering. Unfortunately, the economy at the time had taken a downturn and jobs were scarce. There was this other option for computer studies, but programming large mainframes for accounting applications didn’t interest me at the time. All I knew was that I had an engineering degree, liked a good challenge and had a thirst to understand new technologies.

After graduation I worked for a small engineering firm programming in Microsoft BASIC using one of the first IBM PCs. As technology became more powerful, I moved into roles supporting and implementing computer-aided drafting and design systems for engineers. This then evolved into implementing larger systems for state and provincial governments within the transportation sector for infrastructure management (roads, sewers) and driver licensing systems.

After working for a few years in various aspects of application development, e.g, business analysis, project management and deployment, I moved into developing business models for technology outsourcing. With the advent of IP networks, systems could become more distributed and this opened the door for IT consolidation and cost reduction. During this era I helped lead a project consolidating the Ontario government’s IP network and helped develop the business model behind the DRIVE CLEAN Emission Testing Program.

In time, I helped various parts of government become much better at advancing efficiencies in IT service management and implementing technologies in new ways. Having an increased interest aligning business objectives with technology, I started to work closer with public sector program leads to set and realize their business objectives.

Although I had a few offers to assist with health-related projects over the first 15 years of my career, I did recognize that the industry was very specialized and that any good IT professional would have to be well versed in the business to succeed. Ten years ago one of my colleagues came to me and described the challenges of information sharing across the healthcare space. It happened to coincide with my desire for something new and changes in my personal life.

The decision to stay home in Ontario and join Smart Systems for Health (SSHA) was an easy one. The healthcare IT landscape could be described as the “new frontier”; its lack of advancement fuelled by strong opinions on privacy, a lack of technology education by practitioners and motivation to share information. Although other industries had already embraced technology, SSHA knew that starting with enabling and educating providers would be the first hurdle to getting acceptance. During this time I worked with a large cross-section of healthcare providers ranging from emergency room physicians to LHIN staff and homecare nurses. It was during my seven years at both SSHA and eHealth Ontario that I grew a strong attachment to the industry. I guess it must have been the fact that in every interaction I could relate the work back to improving care for myself or or my immediate family.

I have now been at Online Business Systems (OBS) for a year. I joined largely reacquaint myself with the latest technologies and best practices and continue in my work in the health space.
I currently manage the public sector and healthcare sector space for OBS and have been focused on a few areas.

1. Strategy and Roadmap Development – Having a strong understanding of the IT underpinnings for effective health information sharing and the benefits to be realized, we have been assisting clients to develop roadmaps to achieve their business objectives.
2. Service-Oriented Architecture – The new form of shared computing leverages “the cloud”, the internet and web services technology, as opposed to older client server type applications. In order for applications to be developed in a consistent/compatible way while making the best use these of web services, standards and governance must be introduced. We have been advising clients on the best way to do that, creating models, communications, compliance auditing applications and developing education material on SOA practices.
3. Business Service Management – Based on good work completed by myself and the rest of our team at eHealth, acute care organizations and the banks, we have developed/improved IT support models by extending ITIL principles to focus on meeting key business objectives. This often included assessing and benchmarking existing service organizations, improving/realigning processes and possibly implementing new technologies. As a result we have developed reusable models for managing service requests and supporting non-IT business processes such as applying for access to your health record.
4. Customer Relationship Management – Although this technology grew out of the need to support sales and marketing organizations, it is now being used effectively to manage stakeholders within public sector organizations. This is commonly referred to as XRM. The tools and processes we have developed are based on proven tools and benefit program delivery staff through better reporting (i.e., status, trends) and information consolidation. Some specific examples include the delivery of community care services and the deployment/planning of healthcare-related applications.
5. Deployment Planning and Management – The hurdle for technology acceptance and in-turn process change is still very much the biggest challenge in meeting adoption targets for EHR use. Leveraging experience gained during application deployments for the provincial Drug Viewer (DPV), Wait Time Information System (WTIS) and prep work for Chronic Disease Management (CDMS), we have developed tools and methodologies for deployment planning and management.

In your opinion, how is the consulting environment different from the public sector? Do you think the consulting environment has more benefits with respect to professional growth when compared to the public health sector?
I don’t think that I will be controversial by stating that the public sector is much slower and methodical than the private sector. The requirement to adhere to safeguards, policies/processes with a drive for reduced risk, shifts the work focus to more managing day-to-day logistics and communications versus a direct focus on change. For the right person, the public sector can be an excellent opportunity for growth. During my seven years in the public sector I gained an excellent appreciation of the complexity of the healthcare system, what is required to implement policies and the degree of scrutiny required to meet objectives. These are complexities that the press never talks about, but are required to ensure the best use of taxpayers’ dollars. It was satisfying to work and learn from key people on the healthcare frontlines and an important step to understand the business context of healthcare.

The private sector generally pays more and that is what draws good people away from the public sector. On the other hand, the demand for value and knowledge is larger. It is faster paced and there is pressure to think more innovatively as a way of being market competitive. Generally, there is a higher variety of engagements that one may become involved with depending on the skills one brings to the table. Good generalists have a higher probability of staying local versus specialization, which means travel.

So I guess the answer is what you are looking for and fit with your skills. The best approach is to identify what you are most interested in and follow that path.

What message would you like to leave with your audience?
I have followed the key principles listed below throughout my career. A few of them have been passed on to me through the various books, speakers and mentors I have had the pleasure to be exposed to over the years. I have to admit that lower points in my career where mainly because I did not follow these 10 principles.
Know your strengths and limitations and follow your own instinct as to what you may want to do. Whatever it is, you have to both be interested and enjoy it.

Always strive to learn more; if you find yourself getting stale make a change.

Consider the people you work for, your mentors. If you are not learning anything or cannot respect them, make a change.

Challenge the status quo. Be innovative and step out of the box, but make sure it is in line with a business objective.

Make friends whenever you can. The world is a big a place, but this industry is small.

Never lose perspective: Technology is a solution to a business problem, not the other way around. Operationally: Technology services are there to support a business function.

Communication is the key to success. Nobody can ever over-communicate.

Avoid emotional decisions. The best ones are made on facts.
Be knowledgeable in many things. Be really good in a few.
Be a leader. Take initiative and risk. Learn from your mistakes.

Karen Martin
Social Work Meets Clinical Information Transformation at CAMH
Originally a social worker, Karen is currently the Executive Director for the Clinical Information Transformation (CIS) Project at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Tell us your story and what led you to eHealth and health informatics.
I graduated from Dalhousie University with a BSc in Psychology, leading me to work with homeless and marginalized populations in Ottawa. I was then drawn to Wilfrid Laurier University to study social work, feeling that I might better contribute to the provision of service for marginalized populations by moving to more of a leadership approach to my career path. I graduated from there with my MSW with a focus on individual, group and family therapy and then followed up with a post-graduate diploma in Social Administration. For me it was the perfect combination of the clinical and administrative.

My first role after my graduate degree was at a general hospital where I created and coordinated a Psychiatric Crisis Intervention Team. In that hospital, there was a desire to move to a neater, paperless environment. I was able to work with the IT department to develop the hospital’s first fully computerized assessment in their Meditech environment. During this process, I actually worked directly with a programmer and learned to write code in the development of this tool. Along with the learning curve in the IT domain, it was also my first true foray into workflow design and standardization. I’d love to see where they have come with that tool since then – over 15 years ago.

From there I moved to management at my current workplace – CAMH. CAMH provides inpatient and ambulatory care for individuals with mental illness and/or addictions. The setting has approximately 550 beds, sees over half a million ambulatory visits each year and also has academic, health promotion and policy mandates, all with provincial and international reach. This is an incredible environment to influence change for so many in-need populations.

From where I stand, “cutting one’s teeth” in informatics within a hospital is a fantastic base…

In this environment, I have had a variety of opportunities, all from within hospital administrative roles, managing various treatment settings in an academic health sciences environment. Beyond the typical hospital management roles, CAMH has stretched my change management skills, pushing me to engage in strategic planning, functional programming, team development, public speaking, media and philanthropic engagements, planning and development of novel treatment environments, teaching, research – I have had extraordinary opportunities.

A few years ago, I was approached to lead the organization in a new direction – to orchestrate clinical information transformation in the development of organization’s requirements for the purchase, design, build and implementation of a new clinical information system. My mandate is to help ready the organization for this massive change – from a hybrid “best of breed” and paper health record environment to a full end-to-end CIS.

Our organization has been at this for about two years now, working extremely hard at standardizing practices, processes and documentation tools. We are now in the initial stages of design with our software vendor, Cerner. It has been truly extraordinary to work with the organization as it enthusiastically engages in a tremendous amount of very challenging work. It is an extremely motivating role to be in, working with an organization that has embraced such massive change in order to better provide care and treatment for individuals with mental illness and addictions.

This project has a very aggressive timeline, with an end goal of a full “big-bang” implementation of all solutions in an 18-month period. To be with such a massive project from the planning through to complete implementation is not a common experience.

In your opinion, how is the consulting environment different from the public sector? Do you think the consulting environment has more benefits with respect to professional growth when compared to the public health sector?
I have always valued the opportunities that this government healthcare organization has offered me. In my current role, I have also had the chance to be exposed to the wealth of knowledge that the consultants on our team have to offer. Some of the most effective consultants that I have had the great fortune to work with actually have experience directly from healthcare (as clinicians or as staff on the corporate, often IT, side of the house.) These folks have moved on to consulting and bring both “real life” and frontline experience from the healthcare domain as well as the rigour that comes from the targeted and focused work on projects in a variety of environments as consultants. From where I stand, “cutting one’s teeth” in informatics within a hospital is a fantastic base; it adds valuable dimension to what a professional who remains in the hospital setting or moves into consulting has to offer.

What message you would like to leave with your audience?
My biggest lesson thus far is that my most satisfying opportunities are ones that are off the beaten path, involve taking risk and venturing into unknown waters and, frankly, they have scared me just a little bit – the greater the risk, the greater the reward!

share this article...
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn