Can big data streamline the yearly vaccination process for school-aged children? Or combat the nation's opioid crisis?
That's the hope of Mary Carroll Ford, who was appointed vice president and chief information officer of Philadelphia-based Einstein Healthcare Network this August.
Though the scope of her job is broad—all information technology, telecommunications and digital strategy within the hospital—she's already looking to influence change beyond the organization. In particular, she plans to work with Philadelphia lawmakers to pass laws that make the immunization process for school-aged children a less labor-intensive, paperwork-filled procedure for pediatricians and parents every August.
Ford says the immunization data needed to streamline this process is already in a regional health information exchange, ready to be utilized.
“We’re data-rich, and I want to help Philadelphia understand how to utilize this data to improve the health of our city,” Ford said.
She thinks data and predictive analytics can be used to help combat the opioid crisis, too, and will travel to Washington, D.C., this month, to discuss ways to do just that as part of a task force organized by the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME).
Through CHIME's Women in CHIME group, Ford is also working to help other female CIOs see success in their careers. Formed in response to the disparities between men and women in IT, both in representation and pay, Women of CHIME is devoted to supporting existing women CIOs, and working to get more young women involved in tech.
“I think it’s a problem when you have a department with no females in it. I think it creates a disconnect that sort of prevents other women from attempting to get into the field,” Ford said.
Ford, who has eight siblings, says she was fortunate to grow up with parents who had the same expectations for both the boys and the girls, because it instilled in her a belief that she could do whatever she wanted without limitation. She wants to help other women feel the same.
Crain’s spoke with Ford about her aspirations, what it’s like to be a woman in tech, the healthcare CIO shortage, and how she thinks data can be used to improve quality of care.
Q: What did you do prior to joining Einstein?
A: I’ve been a CIO in healthcare since 1995. I was first in the Mohawk Valley Network in Utica, New York. In 2005, I moved to Lakeland Florida, where I was the CIO for the Lakeland Regional Medical Center. In 2013 I worked consultatively at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. I later went to Alaska to work with the Alaskan Native population, getting telehealth—[the use of telecommunications technology to support long-distance healthcare]—for 256 villages.
Q: What drew you to Einstein?
A: It’s an organization that treats its employees with dignity and respect. And they treat all patients equally, insurance or no insurance.
Q: Briefly, what does Einstein Healthcare Network’s IT department handle?
A: It handles applications, every clinical record for every patient here, patient scheduling, billing, office products like email and Microsoft Excel, and our WiFi network, to name a few things.
Q: As its new VP and CIO, what do you hope to achieve at Einstein?
A: My goals are specifically centered on upgrading Einstein’s digital footprint and making the next big leap in our health information exchange.
For example: In Philadelphia—and every other state in the nation—every time a child starts school, they have to go to their pediatrician and get their immunizations. It’s been a major problem for pediatricians and parents because, every year, they have to fill out paperwork and get all this information together.
Today, however, every time we [Einstein and several other health systems and insurers in the greater Philadelphia region] do an immunization, it goes into a local health information exchange. I want to be the leader that says to the City of Philadelphia, ‘Let’s start passing laws that allow us to utilize this information, so when a child goes to school, we don’t have to go through this whole rigamarole of getting all of this paperwork filled out—we’ll know they have the immunizations.’
Q: How else can data be used to address public health issues?
A: I will actually be on a CIO committee that’s going to Washington to talk about how we can use data and predictive analytics to help with the opioid epidemic, in particular. Researchers found that it can take just ten days of opioid use to become hooked, which is startling. And for many people, opioid use can start after a surgery or an injury. So how do you use this information?
It’s all about identifying the possibility before it escalates. First, I think you would want to quickly identify patients who’ve been on an opioid for longer than five days, or something like that, and start thinking about alternatives to pain management for them. It would also be helpful for all hospitals know about a person’s prescriptions so that he or she can’t get a new prescription from each emergency room they visit, which is what happens. Using this information, we can start to identify at-risk individuals earlier and get them into care.
Q: You’re a woman in tech—specifically, in IT; would you say that men tend to outnumber women in the field? If so, why do you think that is?
A: That’s a good question. I tend to see more men in the infrastructure-type jobs, and more women in the analytical-type jobs. I think that’s because, in healthcare, a lot of our analytics people come from the clinical realm—a lot of them are nurses, and the nurse occupation tends to skew female (though it’s starting to draw more men). Infrastructure tends to skew male, and I think that falls very much into the age-old issue of getting more women into math and sciences.
I think it also depends heavily on your family and their opinions, as well as on your school, teachers and mentors. I think my environment made a difference. Growing up, all of the girls and boys in my family were expected to shovel the walk and do the dishes. We didn’t have those gender roles. My father, who was an educator, also expected all of us to do well in math, science, English and art. My family always assumed that, like men, women could do whatever they wanted, and that they didn’t have limitations.
I was lucky, because I think there still remains that level of people pushing more young boys than girls to do certain things and pursue certain fields.
Q: What drew you to healthcare IT?
A: I think the mission of healthcare is so important to the nation, and I think technology can make a difference in the care we give people.
In Alaska, for example, a lot of Native children have serious ear problems. But because their villages are often only accessible by bush plane, children often don’t get the help they need until their hearing loss has become significant. When I was CIO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, we worked to provide telehealth for 256 villages, allowing us to reach these children at a younger age. As a result, we’re now seeing a generation of children who are not suffering from hearing loss.
On the preventative side, we’ll use technology to do things like notify people about when they should be having a mammogram or a colonoscopy.
These are just a couple of the ways we can use data and technology to improve the care we give people, and it’s something I love.
Q: What do you think is your greatest career accomplishment?
A: Mentoring newer CIOs through the CHIME organization. We need more leadership in healthcare IT. A CIO in healthcare is actually a fairly new position, and there’s a shortage of people qualified to fill the role.
Q: To what do you attribute the shortage?
A: Competition. Because we aren’t competing in healthcare, alone—we’re competing in every industry. We’re competing with Google, Apple, Coca-Cola, and many other organizations with a lot more money and ability to train staff. If you want to work in healthcare, you have to believe in the mission, because it’s not going to be the highest paying tech job you can get.