CHIME Fall Forum Interview Series: Rich Pollack, VP & CIO, VCU Health System


Rich Pollack, VP & CIO at VCU Health System

There’s a lot of healthcare history at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems, where Rich Pollack is VP and CIO, and not just because their medical school has been in existence since 1838. VCUHS was also the third site to deploy the TDS7000 System, meaning computer provider order entry (CPOE) has been in use for more than 30 years. While that predates Pollack, he has a compelling history of his own. He started out on the clinical side of healthcare as a radiology administrative manager. As the world of health IT started to shift and electronic health records became more prominent, Pollack found his clinical background desired by HIT Vendors, and what might look like a meticulously planned career journey was in fact serendipitous. Pollack’s experience continues to serve him well today as he continually looks for ways to enhance patient care through the merging of two worlds. As far as initiatives that are in queue for the year, we discuss everything from telemedicine to data archival, and all their Cerner solutions in between.

CHIME Fall CIO Forum provides valuable education programming, tailored specifically to meet the needs of CIOs and other healthcare IT executives. Justin Campbell, of Galen Healthcare Solutions, had the opportunity to attend this year’s forum and interview CIOs from all over the country. Here is the next interview in the series:

Key Insights

It’s a little unusual, you don’t typically find a lot of academic medical centers with a payer organization

We’re going to try and avoid point solutions and instead go for the EMR vendor’s population health solution, partly because of its tight integration into the EMR.

This organization was an early adopter of electronic medical records and CPOE. We were the third site to deploy the TDS7000 System, way back in the late 70s-early 80s.

What was fortuitous for me was that for a long time, health IT was mainly focused on business systems, financial, billing, and revenue. It was only in the late 80s-early 90s that the focus began to shift to clinical systems and the electronic medical record. That’s exactly around the time that I made the transition into health IT.

You need that understanding of what patient care processes are like: what is the world of the clinician and the caregiver?

Campbell: Let’s start out with a little bit of background about yourself and about VCU Health. I know you’ve been there for over a decade. Tell me about your role there and what you folks are working on.

Pollack: I’ve been here for about 11 ½ years. We’re an academic medical center leveraging Cerner EMR, about a $3B a year organization, and we’re fully integrated. In other words, we have a hospital component that has a community hospital and a children’s hospital, with over 900 beds. We also have a large outpatient component where we see about 650,000 patients a year in over 100 clinics, mostly specialty/sub specialty. We also own our 750-physician practice plan. Those physicians practice in all the clinics and hospitals. They’re complimented by 1,500 other providers, mid-levels, residents, and such.

We are a part of Virginia Commonwealth University, which is the largest university in Virginia. The medical school, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, has been in existence since 1838, so there is a rich history. Another component we added in about 15-16 years ago, is a payer. We have an insurance entity called Virginia Premier. It is a Medicaid HMO, and is the third largest in the state with about 200,000 or so members. That’s a little unusual, as you don’t typically find a lot of academic medical centers with a payer organization.

I run the IT organization, which oversees all the information technology for the entities I previously mentioned. We’re well integrated at the infrastructure layer: we run the same revenue cycle/billing system, from GE, across the inpatient/outpatient environment; and the same EMR, Cerner, services the entire organization. There is a certain amount of decentralization, as you would typically see within an academic medical center, but for the most part, we’re still tightly integrated.

Campbell: That sounds like a vast realm of responsibility for a healthcare information technology leader like yourself. How many applications are you responsible for in the enterprise and do you leverage any enterprise application management software to catalog and manage those?

Pollack: We have about 150-160 applications, depends how you categorize them, which is relatively modest for the size of the organization we are. That’s primarily because we have three core systems that are used by everyone: the EMR, revenue cycle, and ERP. Of those 150-160, some of them are very small applications. You have CBord Dietary Planning Software that runs on a server somewhere and it’s not awfully critical, all the way up to the revenue cycle GE/IDX systems that run on redundant AIX boxes, to the Lawson/Infor ERP, which is remote hosted, as well the Cerner EMR, which is also remote hosted. That’s the portfolio. We don’t necessarily have a formal application management system, but we have a database that we put together that tracks these applications. It looks at: who are the owners, who are the stewards, how old is the software, when’s the next release, when is it going to go out of support, where is it run, how many servers, what location, and those kinds of things. We put that together mainly from a disaster recovery stand-point because we want to know where these systems are, how are they going to be supported from a DR standpoint, what tier they are, and what’s the underlying architecture to support DR for that tier.

Campbell: Thank you for elaborating on that. It’s very insightful. In terms of population health management, how is that managed today? Do you have point solution? Do you rely on the EHR vendor? Do you have a data warehouse that you’re leveraging? Can you tell me a little bit about your approach?

Pollack: Though we don’t have a formal ACO, we are involved in managing population health. As an organization, we’ve been involved in population health management for a long time. We have a large indigent population with a lot of chronic disease patients. We recently stood up a multidisciplinary complex care clinic, that serves our top 5% most costly populations. We use our enterprise analytics data warehouse and our analytics team to help stratify and identify certain populations.

We are looking to deploy Cerner’s HealtheIntent Population Health Platform, primarily the care management aspects of that, both acute and community care management, and secondarily, the smart registries feature. We’re trying to avoid point solutions and instead leverage the EMR vendor’s population health solution, primarily due to its tight integration into the EMR. We are wanting to avoid pushing the physicians, who are the decision makers for these complex populations, out to yet another, or third, application, to try and manage these populations. We wanted to integrate it as tightly in the EMR as we can. That is the place our clinicians live.

Campbell: That makes a lot of sense. I think that’s why Epic and Cerner are in the positions they are today, namely the advantage of native, seamless integration and a singular database across care settings. This approach alleviates the need to harmonize nomenclatures across different care settings. Switching gears again, I know you have a background in medical biology, and you’re a HIMSS fellow as well. Tell me about how you apply your background into your everyday role. Coming from a clinical background, there may be components of it that are valuable to being a healthcare CIO.

Pollack: It’s interesting. In hindsight, it might look like some meticulously planned career journey, but in fact it was anything but. It was pure luck and happenstance that I started out on the clinical side, not on the business and IT side. My first career for 13 years was as a radiology administrative manager. I was involved in: nuclear medicine, ultrasound, radiology, the early days of CT Scanners, PACS, and such. I thought I would stay in that field forever. By chance, I was looking to make a move geographically and ended up going to work for a small health IT company down in North Carolina, that was looking for someone with a radiology background. One thing led to another, and I eventually gravitated into health IT. What was fortuitous was for a long time, health IT was mainly focused on business systems – financial, billing, and revenue. It was only in the late 80s-early 90s that the focus began to shift to clinical systems and the electronic medical record. That’s exactly the time that I made the transition into health IT. My clinical background and experience began to serve me well because of the focus on EMRs; I gravitated towards that. I worked for a couple HIT vendor companies, and then eventually became a CIO. I became attracted to the community hospital setting initially, but then went on to big academic medical centers: MD Anderson, Indiana University Health, and then eventually came to VCU Health.

My clinical background has served me extremely well because that is a bulk of what we do, or a significant part of what health IT is involved in. It’s also the most challenging part. You need that understanding of what patient care processes are like: what is the world of the clinician and the caregiver? I’ve been there, I’ve worked closely with them, I understand what’s involved and the nuances about it. I have a passion for it. All of those things have worked to serve me well. If the industry had gone in some other direction and supply chain was the most important thing, maybe I would be unemployed now… *laughing* At any rate, it just so happened that there was a confluence of forces at work – my background in clinical care with the industries change in direction towards EMRs – and it all came together.

Campbell: Very serendipitous. I imagine having that appreciation, more importantly that perspective, allows you to build trust with stakeholders in clinical positions. Thank you for sharing that background. Let’s discuss CHIME a bit. Tell me about the draw of CHIME for you and what you went there looking for this year. What were the key insights you gleaned from attending the event?

Pollack: The size of the event facilitates networking, which is such a key underpinning and important aspect of belonging to CHIME. I have made incredible contacts, incredible friends and professional relationships through CHIME over the years because it’s focused on networking, connecting peers, and mentoring and supporting each other in many ways. That’s probably the greatest value of the organization.

I find the educational offerings, particularly the track sessions, valuable and engaging. For the most part they’re not vendor presentations, they’re real world experiences from my peers across the country that I can derive some real essence from. That’s tremendously beneficial. I think some of the keynotes have been very inspiring over the years, so I get a lot out of that as well. Those are the key underpinnings: the educational aspects, the networking, and the professional development. I’m CHCHIO certified, which I had to study and take an exam for. I was a little reluctant to do so, but I did manage to pass! I tell people they must’ve had a big curve that year. But I got through that and achieved certification.

The other aspect, which has been particularly important the last several years with ACA and so on, is the voice CHIME brings to the political arena in terms of legislation and regulation. Whether it’s the ONC that they’re dealing with, Congress, the Federal Communication Commission, or the FDA, CHIME has developed a very strong advocacy voice for the world of healthcare IT. They represent our interests and needs extremely well and in a pragmatic way. They bring some of our experienced and senior members in close contact with the people who are setting up and crafting the legislation and regulations, so they can realize what will not work and why, or if there is a better way to go. I’m more of a recipient or beneficiary of that activity from CHIME, but I have a great respect and appreciation for it.

Campbell: In closing, what’s on tap for you this year? It sounds like you’re going to be focused on archival and I imagine integrating the community hospitals will be top of mind for you.

Pollack: We’re building a new hospital and rolling them into Cerner and GE/IDX, that’s our singular, largest project, but we have a lot of others. We have what we call an ERR roadmap, that we update every couple of years, with a lot of subprojects. We’re wrapping up Cerner Oncology implementation, we’ve got Cerner Women’s Health taking off, and we’re looking at adopting the Cerner Behavioral Health module. We’re conducting a lot of optimization, where we go back, revisit and optimize physician and nursing documentation. Those are some of the significant pieces. We also have a lot planned on our infrastructure side. This is one of those years where we’re investing quite a bit into building out our DR capability across our two data centers. We are trying to move forward with VDI at the desktop, which has been a challenge for us in the past, but new technology is making it more feasible for us. The organization continues to grow, the outpatient footprint gets bigger, and we’re opening clinics all over the state. We have telemedicine today but we’re going to go more into the world of virtual visits in a big way, so that’s an exciting venue for us as well.

Campbell: Well, I’ll tell you it sounds like you’re on the forefront of healthcare information technology. This has been most enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to chat.

About Rich Pollack
Rich Pollack is Vice President and Chief Information Officer for VCU Health System. There, his responsibilities include setting the vision for IT, supported by effective strategic and tactical plans that define the best practices in support of patient care and operational excellence.

At VCU Health Systems, his accomplishments include:
* Ongoing successful installation of electronic medical records and computerized physician order entry
* Selection and initiation of a new hospital billing system and enterprise resource planning system
* Contributing to the development of a new all-digital 15 story acute care tower utilizing layers of integrated technology, including wireless, VoIP phones, bedside device integration, mobile access to facilitate effective communication and high-quality care

He also has served as:
* Chief Information Officer for Clarian Health Partners, a $2 billion health system in Indianapolis
* An IT leader at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, lastly as CIO overseeing a 500-person information systems organization with projects totaling more than $100 million supporting clinical, academic, research and administrative functions
* Director of Information Systems for Nash Health Care Systems in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he and his team successfully implemented a computer-based patient record system for the 450-bed, multi-hospital organization, which received special commendation as best industry-practice

Rich has more than 30 years of health care management experience.

Rich holds a master’s degree in medical biology and is a member of several professional organizations.

About Justin Campbell
Justin is Vice President, Strategy, at Galen Healthcare Solutions. He is responsible for market intelligence, segmentation, business and market development and competitive strategy. Justin has been consulting in Health IT for over 10 years, guiding clients in the implementation, integration and optimization of clinical systems. He has been on the front lines of system replacement and data migration, is passionate about advancing interoperability in healthcare and harnessing analytical insights to realize improvements in patient care. Justin can be found on Twitter at @TJustinCampbell and LinkedIn.

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