The Vital Transition

Combining a background in engineering with a profession in healthcare IT, Dennis L’Heureux is driven by his ability to align people management with new technology in an ever-evolving industry

As a child, Dennis L’Heureux often drew pictures of bridges spanning rivers, canyons, or simply connecting two points. This profound fascination with “all things bridges” drew L’Heureux toward the fields of civil and mechanical engineering. Eventually, his interest in engineering bridges evolved from physical steel-and-truss points to theoretical bridges that connect people and processes. Today L’Heureux’s “bridge building’ is vital to Rockford Health System as the organization applies and designs corresponding processes that help streamline required data collection and automate repetitive tasks.

L’Heureux’s transition from manufacturing to the healthcare industry took place very early in his career, while working at Johnson & Johnson as a co-op student from Northeastern University. He previously worked within Johnson & Johnson’s management systems, engineering, and inventory management departments.

“As an industrial engineer at J&J, I was exposed to several time-measurement projects on typical manufacturing lines—including the filling of baby shampoo and talcum for baby powder,” L’Heureux says. “I helped to minimize waste involved when trying to cut different widths from standard sheets of plastic adhesive for Band-Aid strips.”

“This team has coalesced over the years to become one very proficient, dedicated, and unique professional group that seems always up for the challenge.”

One day L’Heureux attended a meeting on the use of industrial engineering techniques to help hospital clients manage inventory levels. It ultimately changed the course of his career.

“This is when I became very curious as to how my engineering discipline could be applied in a nonmanufacturing environment like healthcare,” L’Heureux says. “This was circa 1972. When I got back to Boston for my next trimester, I asked my counselor if he could perhaps find my next assignment in a healthcare environment. He was successful.”

Indeed, L’Heureux’s next assignment included a position as a management-systems engineer at Haricomp, a shared-service organization sponsored by the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, located in Providence. It eventually led to a full-time position there, whereby he became the director of the program before he left for  the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he got his break into IT management. “I have worked in healthcare ever since,” L’Heureux says. “So, from this perspective, it wasn’t really a career change but a focus on healthcare from practically the beginning of my career.”

Today L’Heureux is the senior vice president for IT planning and the chief information officer at Rockford Health System, in Rockford, Illinois, which recently merged with Mercy Health System, in Janesville, Wisconsin.

“When I arrived here, nearly 21 years ago, I inherited three separate IT departments as a result of a merger,” he says. “Each of these areas used different technologies, different philosophies for computing—such as shared services versus ‘homegrown’-developed applications or purchased software. They also had different organizational structures and people management and, of course, different organizational identities. There was no integrated IT strategy, and the new organization was not yet a year old.”

L’Heureux’s initial achievement included the structuring of a new, integrated department for Rockford Health System and establishing a process to evaluate the goals and objectives of the integrated-healthcare company’s portfolio of IT applications.

“The goal was to develop an IT strategy that would support the success of this new venture,” he says.” This resulted in new and common goals, including an emphasis on clinical computing and administrative systems.”

As CIO at Rockford—and other healthcare organizations over the years—L’Heureux has always been responsible for strategic planning, plan execution, and a user-advisory governance philosophy. As such, he sees planning as a dynamic activity that constantly accepts user feedback, evaluates industry trends, and tracks new information technologies so as to understand when to argue for major change and/or adapt applications.

“This has resulted in our successfully implementing one of the more sophisticated electronic medical records in the industry, with which we have offered innovations recognized by our own users as well as independent third parties, for their usability and value,” L’Heureux says.

As the industry has evolved, in part due to the proliferation of technology, L’Heureux and his team have had to embrace change in an ever-evolving and growing company.

“I have always considered myself a change agent, and, ironically, the most challenging aspect of my role is change,” he says. “Over the years here, I have worked for three CEOs, worked with five CFOs, four different hospital COOs, four different group-practice management structures, and different combinations of my own management team. Each of these changes requires a personal communication strategy and a reinforcement of my management philosophy and vision for IT. This is all enveloped around the management of expectations and the difficult challenge of communicating the complexities around the easiest-sounding technical ideas.”   

As L’Heureux approaches his 21st year at Rockford Health System—and 41st year within the industry—he is most proud of the team with whom he now works. “This team has coalesced over the years to become one very proficient, dedicated, and unique professional group that seems always up for the challenge to provide thoughtful attention to detail and excellent customer service,” he says.

And the team’s hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed. In August 2015, Rockford Health System received an award for innovation at CIO Magazine’s 28th annual CIO 100 Awards event. The company has also been recognized as a HIMSS Analytics Level 7 user of the EMR, and it has been recognized as a Most Wired organization nine times by Hospital & Health Networks.

Of course, earning these accolades takes ingenuity, determination, and a sense of wit. “I think my boss might consider me somewhat of a wild card,” L’Heureux says. “Upon his arrival to our organization, he caught me singing at the department head meeting a rendition of [the Rolling Stones song] “Paint is Black”—the lyrics of which started with, ‘I see the bottom line / I want it painted black.’ I guess I am kind of a renaissance person.”

While L’Heureux embraces the ongoing change affecting the healthcare industry, he also works at promoting the profession through various societies and prestigious board positions. In addition to having been very involved with HIMSS and the College of Healthcare Info Management Executives (CHIME), he also has served on several boards, including the RI chapter of Industrial Engineers, West Suburban Joint Diagnostics; the Health Industry Business Communication Council; the Massachusetts Chapter of the Healthcare Financial Management Association; and again the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society, with which he served the New England chapter as president, and board member of the national organization twice, also serving as president in 1992.

“Despite my career accomplishments, it is my personal life—particularly the relationship with my wife, Pauline—that is the sustenance of my existence,” L’Heureux says. “We celebrate our 43rd wedding anniversary in July, and without her sacrifice and support over the years, there would be very little I could point to as success. I am proud of our family and pray that they might also enjoy a sense of accomplishment in their lives.”