June 23, 2011, 6:55 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Impassioned by personal experience and imbued with a go-for-broke mentality, Kathleen Healy-Collier, administrative director of clinical systems, technology and operations at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, is a woman who knows what she wants. And what Healy-Collier wants, with deep-rooted conviction, is excellence in children's healthcare and seamless transition for young patients with chronic illness into the world of adult care. Her quest has taken her into the realm of healthcare IT, a critical steppingstone, she feels, to her ultimate goal of heading a children's hospital. Healy-Collier, also a member of the CIO Executive Council, shares her ambitions in this interview with contributing writer Beth Schultz.
What piqued your interest in healthcare administration?
I really wanted to be involved in something that had a greater purpose, so healthcare was a natural fit. But I didn't see myself as a nurse or in any other clinical role. With healthcare administration, I could pursue more of a leadership role and try to understand the clinical environment while not necessarily becoming a nurse.
What instilled that desire to work toward a greater purpose?
My younger brother was a juvenile-onset diabetic, and he passed away when he was 25. I'd already started down the healthcare path, and along the way other things about the healthcare system and its struggles interested me, but that was a turning point. I felt the healthcare system failed him, or if not failed him, then didn't provide the transition he needed from a pediatric to an adult environment. I felt like I could impact that by looking at a broader spectrum and at the continuum of care through time. So that was the catalyst that sparked my passion and interest in healthcare, and I have been able to have an impact at Le Bonheur – which, by the way, means “the good hour.” I've been able to have my influencers out, and we are looking at how to provide that bridge. And with new technology, we can see how having the right information can help kids and adults with chronic problems be able to better manage themselves and for clinical people to have the right information to make good decisions, even if maybe they're not in the same physical location, about how these chronically ill people might be doing.
Where does IT fit into your story?
I've taken multiple classes, but I don't have a degree in MIS. So I'm not really technical in the true sense of the word, but I've always gravitated toward technology. When we had our initial discussions about electronic medical record [EMR] back in the 2001-2002 timeframe, I was already the default person who understood the systems and how they related and where information might be able to be gathered and that sort of thing. So when it became clear that a leader was needed to bridge the administrative, clinical, financial and IT pieces and to create energy and excitement around the EMR at Le Bonheur, that responsibility fell in my lap. We're part of a multihospital system, and it had become clear that pediatrics had a specific set of needs different from the adult-based system, so that's why the responsibility came to me. Over the years, as I've championed this effort, I've progressed as the senior IT person here.
Le Bonheur moved to a newly built building late last year. How did your relationship with the corporate system play out in the IT decisions for that facility? Did you have autonomy?
Working with Johnson Controls [a Le Bonheur partner on the new building], I had a $16 million-focused IT effort with an entire team of technology experts from telecom, cabling and software. We deployed about four or five systems unique to Le Bonheur as a children's hospital and not deployed elsewhere in the system. So, the expertise lives here. Over time, there is potential that those systems may get rolled out to the adult hospitals. If that happens, I'm perfectly fine with the idea of those systems and control becoming more global. But right now, we're sort of the innovative hospital out of the group, especially since we had the opportunity with the brand-new building and no infrastructure challenges like the older hospitals have.
You've been with Le Bonheur for 14 years – so I'm guessing you're happy with how your career has shaped up there. True?
Le Bonheur has provided a lot of opportunity for me to spread my wings. I've had a lot of experience with strategy, and strategic planning. My team and I have helped to create the business plans and the case statements for where we've invested in specific service lines, like cardiothoracic, neurosciences or orthopedics. I've also had most areas of the hospital report to me at one time or another, with the exception of nursing, so I've had a lot of operational experience. That's been great, with experience with security, pharmacology services and other ancillary areas. Plus I've had a revenue cycle the entire time, responsible for what goes on from the point at which a patient comes in from an intake perspective with insurance all the way through making sure everything is coded properly so we can be reimbursed. Managed care negotiations also fall under me. I share a bit with corporate, but I have a director who owns the pediatric piece. So Le Bonheur has been very good at allowing me to learn – I've even done some fundraising work for the Le Bonheur Foundation.
How did you get to Le Bonheur in the first place, and what roles have you played in your dozen-plus years there?
My dad, who's in the Navy, came to work at the Naval Air Tactical Training Center here in Memphis. So I finished up high school here. Then I went to St. Louis University for four years, and got my degree there. After that, I went to Europe for quite some time and tooled around. (I'm really glad I did that, because I don't know that I would have a chance to do that now for as long as I did.) I came back, got married and started working in quality at Lifeblood, a blood bank, and even there I had some exposure to systems. Then I came to Le Bonheur, which was only my second job, as assistant director in health information. At the same time I was going back to school, working on my masters, and I had a small child at home – so I was working very hard.
Within a year and a half, soon after my director retired, I moved into that role. Shortly thereafter I was promoted to administrative director – our culture has changed quite a bit since then, but at the time nobody else was eager to move up. I thought that was sort of strange because I'm very goal oriented, so I was surprised those in leadership roles weren't pushing for the next level. So even though I was pretty young, I had become administrative director. Then I became interim vice president of operations because my vice president had to take a health leave and I filled in for him during his absence. I was maybe 26, so I had lots of challenges just because I was a young person in that role, and that really made me tougher. I also think I impressed a lot of people because the inclination was to think that I wouldn't be that strong given the age and experience.
Of course as all this is happening, IT is evolving. When I first started, the healthcare IT environment was miniscule. You basically collected information on the frontend, and you had some core systems for labs and radiology and those sorts of things, and you had a billing system – that was it. Now we're putting everything into the computer, and there are all sorts of unintended issues with all of that as well, from a data and data management perspective.
And the leadership is changing, too. I'm actually one of the two executives, I think, who are still here through three CEOs. It's been interesting, how many players have changed, because you have to work with all these people.
How have you managed to finesse your career under changing leadership?
One thing I've done well is to adjust my leadership style to complement my boss. Each of the three CEOs has been different. The first one was analytical and financially oriented. The next one was more of a visionary, big thinker type and not so operational in focus, although she had a lot of experience in operations. My current boss is right there in the middle – not a real financial person, but more in the operations than the prior CEO, but also a very good strategic, big picture thinker.
How do you go about adapting your leadership style so it complements your boss of the time?
First you have to know them – where they're coming from, what their preferences are and how they want to be communicated to. I know my first boss would probably want a strong analytical presentation, and so I'd be very prepared for any types of questions – you really wouldn't want to be caught not knowing an answer. The next one was really fine with you not knowing all the answers. Conceptually if you could get behind what she needed and run and do it, she'd give you that general direction and you gave her the right amount of feedback so she'd feel comfortable. And then the current boss, she's a blend. She'll surprise you with some of her questions, so you still have to be prepared but it's a unique, different personality. She's absolutely brilliant, but can be a little bit hard to read sometimes.
You learn and of course there's trial and error, but you start to realize fairly quickly what's most effective.
Plus, it's not just the boss you have to work with because the entire team changes. Being part of the team is a big part of it. You have to make sure you follow through on the commitments you make, that you're able to hold your team accountable, that you've managed expectations, that, if things aren't going well, you don't hide it under the rug but come forward and be transparent and honest. I know that sounds cheesy, maybe, but it's true. Your integrity goes a long way toward your being able to work with people.
So what are you – analytical- or strategic-minded?
I've always been a bit of an analytical thinker, but I'm a big picture thinker at the same time, so I have a rare combination there. If you need me to analyze something, I'm pretty strong at it – but, I don't really enjoy doing that like I do thinking big picture. I'm really happiest thinking through strategy and how we can better make a difference in people's lives or how we can take technology or think about the revenue stream or policy and make healthcare better.
What characteristics make you a good leader?
I'm able to collaborate with others, and I have an ability to be a bit more visionary on where the organization might be headed and to communicate and get people to buy into that message. That's critical for getting through the rough spots and change, of which we went through a tremendous amount recently and, obviously, in IT change is ever occurring.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style today is visionary and participative. I'm not a micro manager. I give my folks the big dots and allow them the autonomy and flexibility to feel successful – they own it, it's theirs. It has to do with open dialog and transparency, giving them a comfort level with me so they can come to me and be upfront about where they really stand on getting things done. But I do measure success; I'm a goal-oriented individual, so I do put targets out there. I'm reasonable. I try not to make it crazy, but sometimes the demands are outside of my control. They might be from corporate or an external regulatory agency, for example. So we monitor those types of things and we establish goals and objectives, so everybody has a good sense of how they're doing. It also gives me the ability to coach them and give feedback and hopefully understand where their career goals are so I can identify obvious gaps and help them get to the next level.
Did this style come naturally, or did you grow into it?
When I first started as a leader, I had a different view. I had come out of an area that I thought needed to be run in an exact way. When I hired my replacement, I remember thinking, ‘Ew, I wouldn't do it that way.' And, ‘Oh, what are you doing!' – you know what I mean, I thought I was the expert. I needed to back off – I got that message clearly – and let that person grow. What's funny is that she was able to do things more effectively than maybe I even did. What I learned is there are many different approaches to solving problems and your way is not always the best way. But now I do have enough experience and exposure and I do understand the political landscape pretty well so I can provide mentorship.
I understand that you're well on your way to getting your doctorate in health administration. Why?
That's about leadership. My long-term goal is to lead from technology and be the administrator of a hospital, a children's hospital, dedicated to the children's initiative.
You want to be CEO, in other words?
Yes – that's my long-term goal so I'm trying to set up the framework. To be honest with you, and obviously I have a lot more than just IT that I'm responsible for, but the IT piece really has taught me so much. I have confidence in where I'm headed, and I'm putting the stepping stones in place to create that opportunity for myself. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but I think I will. If you don't have a goal, you'll never get there.