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Eric Neil has been named UW Medicine’s new chief information officer (CIO), effective Oct. 16. In this role he will lead UW Medicine’s strategic initiatives to develop technology solutions that improve the experience for our patients, providers and staff.

Neil has previously worked as a consultant with UW Medicine for 13 years in a variety of information technology positions, including Revenue Cycle Director at UW Medical Center, Epic Project Director, Senior Director of Information Technology (IT) Services at UW Medical Center – Northwest and Senior Director of Enterprise Business Systems at UW Medicine.

Since becoming interim chief information officer in January 2020, he not only led UW Medicine through the successful implementation of Destination: One, the largest IT project in UW Medicine’s history, but also successfully met the technology demands that the COVID-19 pandemic placed on our system.

Get to Know Him:

What will your role as CIO encompass?

Our IT Services department is comprised of roughly 600 IT professionals. The sole purpose of our department is to serve the people in our hospitals and clinics and provide technology and communications solutions for patient care, for administrative needs and to support research and medical education.

It is an honor to lead IT Services and we view our IT team members as part of the care team. When providers treat patients, they are interacting with technology the entire time. From the beginning when patients seek care and make an appointment, through treatment and all the way through billing, we are part of that process — and we take it seriously.

You’ve worked at UW Medicine for 13 years in various roles. What keeps you here?

It’s the people and the culture. I love working with all the creative, smart and resilient people across UW Medicine. We have a collaborative approach, where everyone provides input and contributes to decisions, and we are able to go above and beyond what any individual person could do. I’ve been to other places and know what’s out there — we have something special here at UW Medicine.

How do you plan to approach your role as CIO?

The most important thing is aligning with the needs of the hospitals and clinics and having the mindset that we are here to serve and meet their needs.

Transparency and honesty about what we can do better and what we are doing well is a high priority, especially in partnership with our operational leaders. Building a high level of trust in that partnership helps us interact with operations more efficiently.

It’s so rewarding when you have a high level of transparency and dialogue with operational leaders because you can see immediately when you are making a difference. The big, splashy projects are exciting but it’s meeting the day-to-day technology needs that’s most rewarding.

What are your top goals?

Our vision for IT Services is to provide the IT systems, structures and processes that enable UW Medicine to care for patients, foster a robust educational environment and drive ground-breaking research. We know that for UW Medicine to improve the health of the public, we need effective and innovative technological solutions.

Within IT Services, we have grouped our department goals into four pillars:

  1. People
  2. Culture
  3. Process
  4. Technology

Our top priority is to meet the needs of the people in our department and the people we serve. If we meet their needs, they can meet the needs of our patients. Our experience at work and at home during the pandemic has reinforced the importance of putting people first. We have an incredible culture but we cannot take that for granted and need to fertilize and grow the best parts. We must have processes in place that are efficient and highly reliable, for obvious reasons. We list technology last because although the actual technology is critically important, in the end, the technology is just a tool to achieve everything else.

What are some of the biggest challenges UW Medicine is facing that we need technology solutions for?

We have to evolve, upgrade and provide new solutions faster than we ever have in the past. Our competitors are providing solutions faster than before and we need to not only keep up, we need to lead. Our patients and staff expect it. We have a long list of initiatives to achieve this, including our recent implementation of Epic, our migration to a new hardware platform and approach to cloud solutions, and the work on developing a new digital front door for patients to interact with our health system in a way that works best for them.

Another challenge we face is security and ransomware attacks. It’s a problem all health systems are facing. UW is a leading research facility in the world and our research and patient data is a target. We take security seriously and put in a lot of effort to stay in front of these threats and protect our data. Much of the work is behind the scenes but you will be hearing more about security topics in the months to come.

We are also putting significant resources into predictive analytics. If you are able to leverage data to predict that a patient is at risk for having a complication or readmission, you can get in front of that and take steps to ensure the risk doesn’t become reality. We have a number of clinical stakeholders engaged with our IT analytics team on this type of work and we are excited about what this could mean for our patients and our organization.

Destination: One was the largest IT project in UW Medicine history. Can you provide an update on its implementation success and impact on patient care?

As an organization we went into the project wanting to transform and improve certain things, not just install new software. This was a great way to approach the project, as a transformation, with the new software serving as the catalyst.

It’s been fun watching people come together from different parts of UW Medicine to learn from each other and create a standard approach to workflows. The project helped establish new relationships and strengthen old ones.

When COVID-19 hit, we switched to an entirely virtual project: meetings done virtually, testing sessions, demos, training, etc. We had plans for many different types of project contingencies, but a global pandemic was not one of them!

Our stakeholders, physicians, nurses and department leaders pivoted along with our project team and we all worked together to make this project happen. We had 22,000 people trained in January for the go-live. When the hospitals said we needed to push the launch date back to March because of a COVID-19 surge, we were worried people would forget their training, so we had to do retraining before the new launch date. It was stressful for everyone to take on this training in addition to the impacts of COVID-19, but they did it for their colleagues and the patients they take care of.

No project is perfect, and we would have loved to have been on site with the nurses and practitioners for the launch, but with COVID-19 we couldn’t do it. Everyone made it work and I have tried in the months since go-live to express my gratitude to the thousands of people who made this project so successful. Today, our practitioners have one electronic health record (EHR) to review and document in. Our patients have one statement, one bill, one website and one place to call. The project was called Destination: One but it is not our destination, it is our starting point from which we will do many great things with this platform in the years to come.

What are the top technology lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19?

I think one of the big things we learned as an organization during COVID-19 was how to become more nimble. In the early days of the pandemic, it was all hands on deck, grab a bucket and run toward the fire. That spirit continues today and I hope we never lose it.

From a technology perspective we learned how to adapt Epic quickly, we learned a lot about telehealth solutions, we learned about virtual options and working from home, and we learned how to quickly install computer networks and equipment in tents, parking lots, garages, RVs, etc. I think our IT Services team would say it has been a challenging time but also one of the most rewarding things they’ve ever done while at UW Medicine.

When I wear my UW Medicine sweatshirt or vest to the store, almost always, someone stops me and tells me about something UW Medicine has done for them or a family member. I had a QFC employee in the produce section tearing up the other day, telling me about his mom. I’ll stop and listen to those stories all day long. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of not only the UW Medicine story, but part of the produce guy’s story.

What’s something employees should know about the IT team?

Our staff are IT professionals but different from the IT professionals down the street at a software company because our staff believe in, and live, the UW Medicine mission every day. In the last month, after hours, we had IT staff sorting food at a food bank, preparing and serving food at shelters, cleaning up beaches, donating items, sewing items, donating money, volunteering at Mary’s Place, building a house for Habitat for Humanity in Tacoma and many other volunteer activities. Service runs through our IT veins so let us know how we can serve you better!

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I went to school in Eastern Washington and milked cows to pay my way through college. I would get up at five in the morning, milk cows and then go to class.

I have a good relationship with people but an even better relationship with cows!