How Digital Transformation Is Making Health Care Safer, Faster and Cheaper

As chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dr. John Halamka oversees digital strategies that are designed to make patients safer and healthier while cutting medical costs. “We’re able to manage risk because of this digital footprint,” he says.

“What I have to do across 2,200 employees, 83 locations, 4,000 doctors and two million patients is try to take a best guess at what the future will be,” says Dr. John Halamka. Halamka is a medical doctor (his specialty is emergency medicine), but he has spent his career focused on bringing technology to the medical world.

As chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Halamka is responsible for clinical, financial, administrative and academic information technology for one of the world’s leading hospitals. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Beth Israel Deaconess is an academic medical center affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Its services include cardiology, obstetrics, gastrointestinal disorders and cancer care.

Halamka has been in the CIO position since 1997. Back then, he says, he personally wrote the code for the company’s health information exchange and for the foundational work of Beth Israel Deaconess’ electronic health record system (known in the industry by the acronym EHR).

Today, he doesn’t write code. “The nature of what the digital guy does today is more about influence and organization,” Halamka says. His job is to help coordinate the integration of digital technologies across the dozens of medical locations and, increasingly, right into patients' homes. And he does it in an industry of intensely, if understandably, tight regulation.

In a conversation with Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and guest editor for MIT Sloan Management Review’s Digital Leadership Big Idea Initiative, Halamka explains what his five primary digital strategies are, how he deals with the challenge of finding good talent in a nonprofit world and why he found Google Glass intriguing but not ready for prime time.

You’re in health care and you’re a digitally savvy person. Set the stage for us: How is bringing digital technologies to health care different than other industries?

I have a $1.5 million fine if somebody sends a text with a patient identifier in it. I’m betting that doesn’t happen in most other industries. The constraint about data flows, audits and security, is very significant.

Data integrity is very significant.