Health system leaders are looking for ways to squeeze value out of their health information technology investments through improved quality and cost controls, a task frequently assigned to an organization’s medical informatics department.

Don’t have an informatics program yet?

A critical first step in setting one up is identifying who’ll run it, says veteran physician informaticist William Dailey, M.D., chief medical information officer at Golden Valley Memorial Healthcare in Clinton, Mo.

Dailey was one of four physician health IT experts who participated in a panel discussion on how to build and support a medical informatics department at the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems’ annual Physician-Computer Connection Symposium in Ojai, Calif. “The first thing you’ve got to do from a C-suite perspective is to identify a leader,” Dailey says.

The 50-year-old former Navy submariner is partial to promoting from within — just as he was tapped by then Golden Valley CEO Randy Wertz 10 years ago — and then helping to fund their professional development in informatics through conferences and professional associations. “If you’ve got talent locally, you’ll want to develop anything you’ve got there, because you know them better and the commitment they’ve already made to your organization,” Dailey says.  “Look for someone who is well-respected among his peers and not antagonistic.”  

He also sees advantages in physician leadership for the program. “If you want that person to speak to the doctors in a way that’s going to be heard, I think it has to be a doctor — and even then, it can be difficult,” Dailey says.

C-suite leaders should bring their new informatics chief into the organizational planning process. “They’ve got me involved in some strategy and some budgeting and what we call our leadership development initiative, which includes going off-site every three or four months for an educational program,” Dailey says.

Finally, the informatics leader should report directly to the CEO. “I think that’s critical … so you not only can develop the strategy, but also implement that strategy. It allows for a direct responsibility for what you’re trying to accomplish rather than hiding behind a CIO or a CMO.”

It’s unusual for a small hospital like 55-bed Golden Valley to have a CMIO and not a CMO, but Dailey suggests theirs is a model others might want to consider. He’ll also take over as CIO as well under a reorganization scheme proposed by Wertz’s designated successor, Craig Thompson, who moves up to CEO in July. “I think it’s a smart approach for hospitals that don’t have formal physician leadership,” Dailey says. “The CMIO position is great for everything that needs to be done in modern-day health care.”