Contemporary Issues in Medical Informatics: Good Health IT, Bad Health IT, and Common Examples of Healthcare IT Difficulties
Leadership Position in Health Informatics: MD's Need Not Apply

Confusion on Leadership Positions in Health Informatics


This is a no-nonsense article describing profound confusion in hospital and healthcare system HR and IT departments, as well as in recruiter organizations, about healthcare informatics and leadership roles in clinical IT.


One can only scratch one's head at a health care management philosophy and practice that, in essence, operates on the principle that in managing technology investments of hundreds of millions of dollars and a major cultural shift to electronic medical records, a difficult shift that has often proven perilous, there's such a thing as too much talent within an organization.


Some tough questions and observations for the Healthcare Management world:

Read the job description below, posted to the website of the national organization for informatics in the U.S., seeking a Director of Informatics at a large multi state, multi hospital organization, and then the requirements: "Previous clinical experience and a Bachelors Degree in a clinical area are required." This certainly appeared to be a minimum requirements specification, considering the scope of the position and the expertise called for as follows (I changed numbers and removed the name of the organization):


Confidential Position Specification
Director, Clinical Informatics

Our client is a multi-institutional [religious denomination] health system headquartered in the greater [large city] area. The system includes 46 freestanding and hospital-based long term care facilities, 28 acute care hospitals, 44 home health/hospice agencies, 3 long term acute care hospitals, 14 assisted living facilities, 7 continuing care retirement communities, 4 behavioral health and rehabilitation facilities, and numerous ambulatory and community-based health services. Incorporating ## states, from [state 1] to [state 2], the system employs approximately ##,### full-time employees.

A new position within the organization, our client is seeking a Director, Clinical Informatics to help lead and define of the clinical IT vision and roadmap for the organization. He/she will drive the direction for clinical information systems by facilitating councils, educating internal stakeholders, conducting research, tracking industry trends, monitoring government sponsored initiatives and collaborating with clinical and IT leaders to plan, develop, implement and monitor the effectiveness of advanced clinical systems. In collaboration with the corporate and local senior executive team, as well as, clinical and IT leadership, this executive will provide thought leadership for clinical system initiatives in support of organizational goals to improve patient safety, quality of care, operational efficiencies, patient/physician convenience, patient, physician and colleague satisfaction as well as meet regulatory requirements, such as JCAHO and other industry accepted standards.

The candidate will be a highly talented professional with a strong executive presence who will bring a broad knowledge of the healthcare information technology industry and an in-depth understanding of current state of clinical system development and adoption, and evolving third party clinical data services and knowledge resources. One should have progressive experience successfully managing clinical information solutions in a multi-hospital environment and/or healthcare IT consulting organization using a defined project management methodology. Specific experience implementing clinical documentation systems, CPOE, and ambulatory electronic medical records (EMRs) is ideal.


Previous clinical experience and a Bachelors Degree in a clinical area are required.



Note that nowhere in the job ad is formal postdoctoral education in medical informatics called for, such as is sponsored and paid for at a number of prominent universities by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and provided at many other private universities on their own funds.

The tough questions and candid observations start now:

Do this healthcare organization's executives think they have nothing to learn from the NIH about healthcare computing? Do they know about these training programs? Should they know about them? If they don't know, why not? If they do know, do they think such credentials not worth specifying? Do they hire neurosurgeons in the same way? If not, why not?

Putting the above issue aside, when I inquired about this role with the large national firm's recruiter retained by the healthcare system to conduct the search, I received an initial positive response on my voice mail the very next morning. Then, I found I could not contact the recruiter for several days, only getting voicemail, and the recruiter was not returning my calls.

I finally reached the recruiter a few days later, and the response I received was unexpected and disappointing: "the organization was looking for a nurse and they would not even talk to a physician." Then, just to rub salt into the wound, I was then asked if I could provide 'leads' to nurses qualified for the role. (Of course, for free.) This was a simply stunning request in context.

Not being in the business of supporting large recruitment companies with gratis leads, I suddenly suffered an acute amnesia...

In any case, the MD exclusion was a surprise. The ad certainly didn't say "MD's need not apply", but it seemed it should have. I have nothing against a nurse-informaticist for this role, but let the competition for the role be fair and inclusive, not biased based on one's degree!

How to explain this?

Was there a "preferred internal candidate" who just happened to be a nurse with a bachelor's degree? Is this yet another way healthcare management will try to usurp physicians, through control of clinical IT via nursing or other specialty group? Does it reflect lack of knowledge about MD informaticians? Was it a skimping on compensation - a very, very bad area in which to skimp? (I have always marvelled at the utter stupidity of organizations that skimp on salaries for specialists whose function will make or break millions of dollars of technology and affect patient lives, while of course rewarding non-clinical executives with lucrative packages.) Was it my background that scared the daylights out of the CIO or other officer there? Or does the MD exclusion reflect someone's sheer lack of competence about what is really needed for successful clinical IT implementation? You be the judge.


I inquired of the organization's CEO and CIO about this MD exclusion which I considered rather unusual. I am always astonished to observe that healthcare Informatics often seems like Bizarro World:



In the Bizarro world, a cube-shaped planet known as "Htrae" ("Earth" spelled backwards), society is ruled by the Bizarro Code, which states "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!". In one episode, for example, a salesman is doing a brisk trade selling "Bizarro bonds. Guaranteed to lose money for you". Later in this episode, the mayor appoints Bizarro #1 to investigate a crime, "Because you are stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together". This is intended and taken as a great compliment.



Here are the responses I received to my inquiry about physician-informaticist exclusion from a Healthcare Informatics leadership role in a large healthcare system:



[From a Sr. HR Associate]: 


Thank you for your interest in our Director of Clinical Informatics position here. We are working with [recruiter] at [recruiter firm] in the recruiting for this position. Please contact [recruiter] regarding your interest in this position. Thank you again for your interest in [our organization].


Are they a little confused here? I replied to the Sr. HR Associate, with CC: to the CIO and CEO.


Dear [Sr. HR Associate]:

It was indeed[recruiter] who told me of the MD exclusion. As Member at Large of the AMIA Clinical Information Systems working group, and as former Director of Clinical Informatics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware and an informatics leader at Merck & Co., Inc., you can perhaps understand my interest in the exclusion. I write about informatics strategy in national publications. I would be interested in the rationale for MD exclusion.


I then received an email from the Chief HR Officer:



[From Chief HR Officer]:

I am responding to the email you sent to [our CEO] regarding the above-referenced position. Thank you for sharing your perspective on our search and the possible field of candidates. Our focus on candidates with a nursing background is driven by several factors. Our preference is to have a nurse or physician in this position as they can provide the broad clinical knowledge and leadership compared to other focused clinical specialties. Unfortunately, [our] salary structure for this position is lower than that of credentialed physicians who have practiced medicine. While physicians working in an academic setting may find the salary range for the position acceptable, we have a preference for candidates with direct patient care experience who can relate to [our] clinical leaders about their operational realities. [We are] fortunate to have [name] in the CMO role as [name] is able to provide physician IT leadership based on his prior experience at [another large organization]. With these factors in mind, [our] Chief Information Officer decided to focus our recruiting efforts on qualified candidates with a nursing background. However, we are not opposed to considering physicians that meet the qualifications and are amenable to compensation within our salary range. This has been discussed with the search firm assisting [us] to fill the position. We welcome your suggestions of candidates for consideration, and thank you again for sharing your perspective.



It appears it didn't matter that I have all of the above, as it is - academia, industry, patient care, IT, NIH postdoctoral fellowship in medical informatics, etc. Unfortunately, this spin-control-sounding response raised more questions than it answered, such as (for starters):

1. Regarding a preference for candidates with patient care experience as opposed to academic settings - what physician would not have had patient care experience in academia?

2. What is so unusual about their hospitals and other facilities that they require "special experience" to "relate to" clinical leaders and operational realities - is something unusual going on at them?

3. Is there something strange about their operational realities that are untenable for people who've spent some time in academia? Does academia make them unable to handle the realities? Is so, this is unusual, and it would be good to know how this could happen, because if so, we need to fix it! (We can't have doctors who can't relate to operational issues after spending time in academia.)

4. Is the amount of leadership needed to be provided so small and so insignificant as to be easily performed by one CMO? That presumes that this amount of leadership will not grow, expand, or be a significant burden on the CMO.

5. If an organization is serious about recrutiting, shouldn't there be a good understanding about who they want to hire, and shouldn't they act transparently in a way that cannot be perceived as deceptive?

6. Is this a decision based on cost-cutting, and not a decision based on providing excellence in care? Don't hospitals have a public responsibility to provide the latter? In my experience I have seen actions taken by CIO's to cut costs at the expense of quality of medical care.

7. "We are not opposed to physicians" - that they should even consider "opposition" in the same sentence as "physician" betrays some sort of bias in hiring policies highly inappropriate for a hospital.

8. "With these factors in mind, our CIO decided"... since some of these factors are incorrect, the CIO perhaps needs to reconsider his decisions. Clearly one sided and provincial, making a decision on weak factors can only result in a weak decision. More effort and care should have been spent on defining the premises and analyzing them behind the formulation of this position.

9. What expert in the field of Medical Informatics was consulted with, or did this organization feel there's nothing these experts have to tell them?

10. Why do they say nurse or physician on one part, but then that the CIO prefers a nurse? Clearly this response does not articulate in a focused manner what they want. Perhaps they need to go back to the table and reach a clear, lucid concensus on what they want to do.

11. While they have the prerogative to run their hospital as they see fit, they also have the obligation to run it in the best possible interests of the public, something other private institutions are not obligated to do. Irrespective of who owns the organization, because the public interest is at stake, critical decisions they make need to be able to withstand scrutiny by the public.

12. Corporate spin control mumbo jumbo is not a confidence builder; rather, it is an indication of subjectivity and even perhaps duplicity.

I'd addressed most of the quite unoriginal points in the HR response almost a decade ago on a page entitled "Fighting stereotypes and politics that impede informatics leadership" such as:


Medical Informatics is too academic

Medical Informaticists are "techies"

Medical Informaticists need to be seeing patients

Doctors don't do things with computers

Doctors don't have enough experience

Doctors don't have IT leadership skills

Doctors don't understand business

Doctors don't have personnel management skills

Doctors are not team players

Doctors can't manage projects

Doctors don't think strategically

Doctors in clinical computing projects should report to MIS


The only thing that's clear is that the MD exclusion originated with the CIO. Seems the CIO felt one doc was enough (god forbid two docs leading clinical IT).  My response was polite but firm:


Dear [Chief HR Officer],

Thanks for the response.

My concerns did not have to do with your selection of qualifications which is certainly your organization's prerogative. It had to do with submitting my expression of interest and receiving a next-day positive response from the recruiter. Then, several days later after her not returning my calls (I presume your organization reviewed my resume during that period), I reached her and was simply told your organization "was not seeking physicians." Period, end stop. The recruiter was rather final about it and immediately asked if I could refer nurses to her. That was surprising and disappointing, to say the least.

Just as it is your organization's prerogative to make decisions about hiring, I live up the road from one of your hospitals and in that regard am a stakeholder. I think we can agree it is my prerogative to express myself. I intend to write your Board of Directors about what I feel is an interestingly-timed about-face on your organization's part, and on the overall strategy as you outlined below for such a critical change transformation as clinical information technology.


Finally, I received this from same Chief HR Officer:


[From Chief HR Officer]:

While you have an absolute and unfettered right to contact our Board, I want to assure you there has been no “interestingly-timed about-face” on this matter by [us]. Until your email below informed me, I was completely unaware of your interest in the position. We are in the early stages of the search and we have reviewed no resumes to date. As is typically the case, resumes are not presented until a slate of candidates has been developed. I will contact the firm to discuss their process and to review our requirements. I regret that you were given an incomplete response. Thank you for sharing your perspective.


To which I replied:



Dear [Chief HR Officer],

The recruiter indicated she spoke to someone in the organization before saying [your organization] was not looking for a physician informaticist. It sounds like there are multiple breakdowns in communication. That said, I thank you for the response.


Is this a "doctors don't do things with computers" moment, mismanagement, territoriality, miscommunication, ineptness, or above-board, state-of-the-art strategic and tactical planning for major healthcare informatics activities in a large healthcare system?

I report, you decide.




I periodically receive solicitations for health IT positions from recruiters at large hospitals.

Here's just the latest two, quite typical of what I receive on a regular basis. Keep in mind that I completed an NIH postdoc in clinical IT, have been a CMIO (Chief Medical Informatics Officer) in a 1000+ bed regional medical center reporting the the Sr. VP for Medical Affairs, been a Group Director of informatics in a multinational pharma overseeing a staff of 50, and am now a professor of informatics and IT (for the second time in my career).

#1, from the largest medical center in the Philadelphia suburbs, where I did my residency in Internal Medicine and am well-known to the clinical staff:


Systems Analyst


Physician Practices Ambulatory EMR systems experience required.


Full-time, including support call rotation


You’ll implement and support clinical systems for Physician Offices for one of the busiest hospitals in the Delaware Valley.


·         Familiarity with Eclipsys Sunrise Clinical Manager and/or Ambulatory Care Manager and Misys Vision would be assets

·         Experience with project management, electronic medical records, help desk and implementing process changes

·         Troubleshooting, problem resolution and creative thinking a plus


Troubleshooting, problem resolution and creative thinking "a plus?"  Troubleshooting, problem resolution and creative thinking probably can come in handy when dealing with clinical IT project management, doctors, process change, and EMR's, especially when doing Help Desk support as a lowly Systems Analyst.

#2 comes from a recruiter for a California hospital:

Description:  Manager of Clinical Support Systems, CPOE, Clinical Manager in CA Hospital.  The successful candidate will have a clinical background (nurse, but not essential) and really know the ancillaries and understand their strategic importance to the execution of all the “in vogue” IT projects like EMR and CPOE. The successful candidate in this role will be very smart and take extreme pride in delivering results!

Why in the name of heaven would anyone seriously think of sending me a JD for a manager-level position, at least two levels below my previous hospital and pharmaceutical positions? I also received a personal phone call from this recruiter as well as an email.  This was not computer-generated spam.

Do I see that a clinical background is really not essential?  I imagine it could indeed be useful in such a role to be "very smart" and take pride in one's work.

Infrequently indeed do I see requirements for formal healthcare informatics or IT training. In some ads, only a bachelor's in IT is called for.

These ads probably do result in hiring of clinical IT personnel, who clinicians increasingly depend on for tools essential to clinical care (if only in the sense that clinicians are ordered to use them).  I would not enjoy imagining what would occur if neurosurgeons were hired in the same way.

Paraphrasing Bill Hersh, it seems the following philosophy is all too common: "While it's unwise spending millions on Electronic Medical Records without investing thousands in medical informatics expertise ... we'll do it anyway."

This reminds me of a line on irrational arguments from former engineer/comic artist Scott Adams:


Ignoring the Advice of Experts Without Good Reason
Example: Sure, the experts think you shouldn't ride a bicycle into the eye of a hurricane, but I have my own theory.