The Critical Skills for Leading Major Change in America’s Health System

Image result for transparent decision making


At a time of profound volatility in the U.S. health system, change management is an essential skill for public and private leaders alike. For these leaders — and young people aspiring to careers as health care managers — one very practical question emerges: What are the critical skills for leading major change in our health system?

As someone who has led large change management projects in both the federal government and a large private health system, my view is that effective leadership of fundamental change requires the following: a commitment to transparency; involving stakeholders so they feel that their voices are heard; making listening a personal priority of the leader; going overboard in communicating; emphasizing that the sought-after change is achievable; and developing a motivating narrative.

Two personal stories illustrate these points.

The first concerns the challenge of creating the meaningful use program for the HITECH Act when I served as national coordinator of health information technology from 2009 to 2011, at the beginning of the Obama administration. The second involves the task of replacing the electronic health record system (EHR) at Harvard-affiliated Partners HealthCare, the largest health system in New England. The latter was a project I led after returning to Partners in 2011. This was a $1.2 billion capital investment, the biggest in the organization’s history.

Both challenges were fundamentally political with a small “p.” And the road to success was in many ways the same.

The HITECH Act, which was part of the federal stimulus program enacted in response to the financial crisis of 2008, tasked the Obama administration and its Department of Health and Human Services with creating a nationwide, interoperable, private, and secure electronic-health-information system. The president made this goal even more formidable by promising that every American would have an electronic health record by 2014.

The HITECH Act provided a wide array of authorities:

  • As much as $30 billion in new spending under Medicare and Medicaid. This was for incentive payments and supplemental reimbursement for services provided by health professionals and hospitals that became meaningful users of IT.
  • $3 billion in discretionary spending authority for the national coordinator to set up the national infrastructure needed to support and facilitate the adoption and meaningful use of EHRs.
  • Authority to write new regulations defining meaningful use of these systems, creating a certification process for EHRs, and specifying standards that would enable records to support meaningful use, as defined by regulation.

The HITECH Act also included constraints — many about timing. Regulations setting out standards had to be issued within about nine months from the time I arrived. Furthermore, payments to providers for conforming to meaningful use were to be available under the law in less than two years — by January 1, 2011. So any infrastructure supports to assist providers in becoming meaningful users had to be in place very fast — by early 2010 at the latest.

Still another constraint — one of those important details that are appreciated by students of management — was that the Office of the National Coordinator that I inherited was tiny (a total of 35 FTEs) and had never written a regulation or made a grant before. There was, for example, no grants-management office even though we were expected to rapidly expend $3 billion in infrastructure grants and contracts to prepare the nation for meaningful use.

Though the implementation of the HITECH Act seemed superficially like a technology project, I gradually came to realize that it was much more than that.  Nothing in the law required hospitals or doctors to adopt or meaningfully use electronic health records. They had incentives to do so, but they could easily refuse.

In fact, we were actually engaged not in a technology-implementation program but in a huge change-management initiative. We had to convince hundreds of thousands of health professionals and thousands of hospitals and hospital managers to take on the difficult, complex, costly, disruptive, and frustrating task of changing the way they managed what is arguably the most critical resource used in daily patient care: information. We were in a contest for the hearts and minds of professionals running our health care system. This larger battle for hearts and minds conditioned everything we did in applying our authorities and meeting our practical challenges.

First, to create the credibility and trust we needed to lead this movement, we insisted on transparency. We formulated the meaningful-use regulation in public through a series of hearings and public deliberations, which were streamed live. Whenever we faced the option of whether to make a decision in public or private, we chose the public approach. We held scores of open meetings involving our advisory committees during the two years I was national coordinator.

Second, to deepen public trust, we made listening a priority. Understanding that people affected by government policy want to be heard, I took every meeting I could with representatives of health care stakeholders, especially physicians and hospitals. After one meeting, I got feedback about what a great exchange we had. In fact, I had said nothing at all beyond introducing myself at the outset.

Third, we communicated extensively. When we released the proposed rule, we did so with a press event in the Great Hall of the Department of Health and Human Services with a packed crowd. I then went on a national tour — to Tampa, Minneapolis, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Burlington, Buffalo, Houston, and beyond — to explain the proposed regulation.

Fourth, we emphasized the feasibility of complying with the meaningful-use rule. We needed to make clear that becoming a meaningful user was not a superhuman task. We wanted adoption to be so manageable that non-adopters would be embarrassed among their peers at golf outings or weekend cocktail parties.

Fifth, we sought narratives — metaphors for what we were trying to accomplish — and I used them repeatedly in my speeches. The one that stuck was an escalator image: We were getting on an escalator toward increasingly sophisticated and powerful uses of EHRs. We were starting on the first step, but the rest would follow in due time.

We also spoke of inevitability. It was inconceivable, we argued, that within 10 years, physicians and hospitals would still be walled off from the information age. They could make the conversion now — with government support — or they could wait and do it on their own. But either way, they were going to have to make the change. They were going to have to get on that escalator.

The meaningful-use program has had its problems, but it did succeed in one of its most fundamental purposes: the adoption of EHRs, which are now ubiquitous in medical practice.  In the end, the program got very close to fulfilling President Obama’s promise that every American would have an electronic health record by 2014.

Now let’s turn to the task of implementing a new EHR in a large operating health system that included two major teaching institutions (Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital); multiple community hospitals; a rehab hospital; a nationally-known, inpatient, psychiatric facility; a half-dozen community health centers; a home-health-care agency; thousands of community-based physicians; and the largest non-profit, private, biomedical-research program in the world.

The Partners HealthCare System was already sophisticated electronically.  The problem was that it had multiple, homegrown, electronic health records onto which local physician-developer teams had layered a wide variety of specialty specific applications. The result was an electronic tower of Babel that was becoming increasingly expensive to service and modernize. But the key problem was that the records were not internally interoperable, which had become a growing barrier to improving quality and efficiency in an increasingly demanding local-health-care environment.

Before I arrived in 2011, Partners leadership had made the decision to replace all this complexity with a single, commercial EHR. It was my job to lead the process of picking one and rolling it out.

Now, though Partners was legally a single health-care-delivery system, I knew from having worked there for much of my professional life that it was in fact a loose confederation of independent institutions populated by equally independent and skeptical professionals. Winning their support, and that of managers throughout the system, was critical to success. Once again, we were battling for hearts and minds, which meant that many of the approaches we relied on in government were relevant.

Building trust through a transparent decision process was the first strategy we pursued. The initial and critical decision we faced was which EHR to purchase.  There were two finalists. To choose, we collected evidence, evaluated the alternatives, and made decisions in highly public and inclusive ways. We invited thousands of professionals to test and rate the two products. We reported the results publicly on a project website. We conducted site visits to health care organizations around the country using the products we were considering. Site visit teams were diverse and representative of major Partners institutions and stakeholders. They rated the sites’ experiences with the EHRs, using a standardized protocol. We reported results on the website.

Then, we held a public debate between advocates of the two contending records — in which teams argued about relative merits before the audience voted. The vote was highly influential in our final choice. This transparent and inclusive decision-making process included an enormous amount of built-in listening and feedback from affected staff, another critical part of the change-management process.

To address the need for inclusive governance and representative decision making, we put in place a governing council for the EHR project. Members included representatives of critical Partners institutions and stakeholder groups. This council approved all major decisions with respect to the choice of the EHR and implementation policy. We then took those approved decisions to senior management of Partners, and ultimately to the Partners board, for final endorsement. Obviously, the fact that a representative body had approved our recommendations enormously increased their weight with management and board members.

As in the case of the meaningful-use program, communication was important. It didn’t require traveling the country, but it did require visiting all the major Partners institutions to speak with their staff and management, to answer questions, and to take in feedback.

Finally, we needed a rationale and a narrative that conveyed the necessity of undertaking this admittedly expensive and disruptive change in Partners affairs.  The rationale and narrative focused on the institution’s obligation to its patients. This was conveyed first in a motto: one patient, one record, one billing statement. To make this motto concrete, we made a video of a patient describing how she had had to carry a paper record from one Partners institution to another — all of which had siloed EHRs — as she got care for her breast cancer: surgery at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and radiation at the Massachusetts General Hospital. I recall vividly the impact this video had during a presentation I made to the academic chairs of departments at Mass General. Patients’ stories had an almost unimpeachable legitimacy, even with the most senior Harvard academic leaders.

Before I left Partners to join the Commonwealth Fund in 2013, we had chosen the EHR and begun the rollout of the new IT infrastructure. While that rollout has not been perfect and, typical of such massive implementations, there have been plenty of complaints about the difficulty of using the new record, it has largely proceeded according to plan.

Change management is at the core of everything that public and private institutions are striving to achieve in reforming national policy and care-delivery approaches in order to improve the quality and cost of health care services provided daily to Americans. The effectiveness of leaders in both the public and private sectors in managing ambitious change efforts will determine their ultimate success. And my experience suggests that the skills required in these two sectors are remarkably similar — because change management, regardless of setting, involves convincing human beings to give up something they know for something new and uncertain.

Who are you?

Image result for the who who are you

Abstract: This is an article about integrity and its importance as a critical success factor in business.

A very good friend of mine suggested I write an article entitled, “Who are you?”  After thinking about this concept, I decided that this is a very good question.  Who are you?  What are you made of?  What are your values, morals, mores, ethics and guiding principles?  What are the tenants of your faith?  To what power do you ultimately ascribe?

My living has shown me that a lot of people wax eloquently about their high values and standards.  I have heard my fill of this around churches.  My experience has taught me that in the course of life, you will be tested.  Sometimes the test is over a big issue with substantial consequences and a high level of visibility.  At other times, the test is trivial.  The only witnesses will be you and your God.  Will that test show that you are who you say you are when it really matters?  Will your proclamations be affirmed by your actions?

I was coming back to my mountain house one day.  As we approached, we saw the man of the family that was renting the house next door and two of his small children coming out of our driveway with all of our firewood they could carry.  When I confronted the man with his children as witnesses, he offered to pay me for the wood.  I told him that if he needed the wood bad enough to feel compelled to enlist his small children in the act of theft by taking, I did not want his money.  He offered to return the wood.  I asked him if he was inclined to return the wood, why would he steal it in the first place?  I told him that if he had asked me in advance, I would have given him enough wood to build a campfire for his family.  I told him to enjoy the stolen wood.  I did not want it back.  I think the man was so ashamed that he did not know what to say.  I hope his encounter with me burned an image onto his mind and the minds of his children they will never forget.  I wonder how the children’s opinion of their father might have been permanently altered by their encounter with me?  The children were not old enough to think about who they are but I wonder if what their dad was doing with them was consistent with other values he was supposed to be teaching them?  I wonder if the man will remember his encounter with me when his children become teenagers and get involved in considerably more serious thefts?  I wonder if he will connect the dots back to the day he was teaching his children that theft was acceptable?  Who was this man?  Is who he really is consistent with who he tells others he is?  Who will his children grow up to be?

I have seen my fill of  bizarre behavior in healthcare organizations.  People that will say or do anything to advance their cause in the organization.  Business partners that are actively or complicity involved in less than honorable dealings.  I worked with a man who had a very simple test of integrity:   Does the other person do what he says he will do or not?  If you cannot trust someone to do what they say they will do, what can they be trusted about?  I have developed a serious problem dealing with people I do not trust.  I know that this is more the rule than the exception in politics where anything goes but I choose to avoid dealing with people who have demonstrated they cannot be trusted.

When my children were growing up, I taught them that there is a major problem with integrity.  You can spend an entire lifetime developing integrity, respect and rapport among your acquaintances that can be permanently destroyed in a matter of seconds when a breach of honor or integrity occurs.  After the breach, there is no cure.  People aware of the indiscretion will never trust you again because they have no way of knowing if what you are saying this time is true or not.  Along the way, I came across the following poem.  It had a profound effect on me and my children and probably has something to do with them going up to be the adults they are.  Their formative years were very highly influenced by their grandparents.  Do not underestimate you ability to have an effect on others, especially children.  Remember the Randy Travis song ‘He Walked On Water?’  I cannot listen to this song without tearing up because Randy is singing about my mother’s father, a man whose shoes I could never hope to fill.

Your Name

You got it from your father,

it was all he had to give.

So it’s your’s to use and cherish, for as long as you may live.

If you lose the watch he gave you, it can always be replaced.

But a black mark on you name son, can never be erased.

It was clean the day you took it, and a worthy name to bear.  When he got it from his father, there was no dishonor there.

So make sure you guard it wisely, after all is said and done. You’ll be glad the name is spotless, when you give it to your son.

So, who are you?  Are you who you say you are?  Who do others say you are?  Do you have to tell people who you are or is it evident in your living?  What will you do when you are tested?  I can say from personal experience that I have been tested and I failed a test when I was younger in an effort to protect my self-interest by going along with something that I knew was wrong.  While I have been forgiven, I have never been able to forgive myself.  I have been tested since then and I will not make the same mistake twice if for no other reason than the pain of bearing the guilt and remorse is not worth it.  What would you do if the stakes of the test was your job?  What if you did the wrong thing and still got the outcome you were trying to avoid?  Would you judge the risk as having been worth taking?  My experience has taught me that it is not worth it to take such a chance in the first place regardless of the risk.

An acquaintance of mine has been charged with felonies by the government related to alleged falsification of reporting related to a corporate integrity agreement among other things.  Did he know the reporting  was incorrect?  The trial will make that determination.  If the erroneous reporting was intentional, the result will be devastating.   The government has asked the court for his assets to be forfeited.  He and his family will be severely impacted regardless of the outcome of this dispute.  Sadly, the government’s case has carried so often when healthcare compliance is involved that political candidates like John Osoff run on the claim that they will save the government by curtailing abuse of the Medicare program.  The Attorney General recently made news by announcing that he was bringing charges against over four hundred people at the same time alleging they defrauded the Medicare program.  Anyone involved in making any kind of disclosure to the government that does not take the potential consequences of inaccurate disclosures whether intentional or not seriously is a certifiable idiot in my opinion.  That someone would spend a single second contemplating whether or not to do the right thing when compliance is involved says everything about who they really are.

Willie Nelson said in a song that, “Regret is just a memory written on my brow and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”  While you cannot change anything that has happened before, you can change a lot going forward.  If you owe anyone an apology for anything you regret, strongly consider doing it.

I would like to thank my dear friend Linda Jackson who is one of the strongest and most incredible people I have ever met for inspiring this article.

Contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these articles, leadership, transitions or interim  services.  I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you.  An observation from my experience is that we need better leadership at every level in organizations.  Some of my feedback is coming from people who are demonstrating interest in advancing their careers and I am writing content to address those inquiries.
The easiest way to keep abreast of this blog is to become a follower.  You will be notified of all updates as they occur.  To become a follower, just click the “Following” bubble that usually appears near the bottom each web page.
I encourage you to use the comment section at the bottom of each article to provide feedback and stimulate discussion.  I welcome input and feedback that will help me to improve the quality and relevance of this work.
This is original work.  This material is copyrighted by me with reproduction prohibited without attribution.  I note and  provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material.  If you choose to link any of my articles, I’d appreciate notification.
If you would like to discuss any of this content, provide private feedback or ask questions, I may be reached at

Trust: The Cornerstone of Relationships and Leadership–the-cornerstone-of-relationships-and-leadership&

CoachStation: Building Trust in Leadership

Trust is the key to meaningful leadership, relationships and influence.

Most of us know this, but how do we develop trust in the workplace and at home?