Managing Disruption

Greg Walton, former chief information officer at El Camino Hospital, has spent the past forty-five years merging technology and healthcare

Technology plays a critical role in healthcare today, yet Greg Walton—former chief information officer at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California—thinks technology is both underappreciated and overpraised. “Technology is such a norm in the healthcare sector that sometimes it gets overlooked,” he says. “That’s okay; the reality is that patients remember far more about the people than the gadgets.”

Walton has been involved in healthcare technology nearly as far back as the day computers first entered hospitals. As an undergraduate, he joined Army ROTC, and he was later assigned to a military hospital in Georgia. Walton had wanted to be a marine biologist, but his time working with physicians and nurses got him interested in healthcare.

After his military service, Walton worked at a small hospital in New Jersey that was converting to using computers in 1973. He then joined the computer company itself. “It was more fun than what marine biology would have been,” Walton says. “I realized it would impact people more.”

Walton built a forty-five-year career out of that impactful fun. He was set to retire in 2007 when El Camino Hospital, which has served the South San Francisco Bay Area for more than fifty years, hired him. El Camino, he says, has a unique healthcare technology history. In the 1960s, nearby Moffett Air Force Base was working with mainframe computers. “They needed to find a civilian use for them and talked to doctors at El Camino, asking whether they could use them in healthcare,” Walton says. “This is one of the places where healthcare technology began, and that was really energizing.” He worked there until the end of 2016 and is now a consultant.

Walton has seen many different emerging technologies bring innovation and disruption to the field over the years. “For the last twenty years, EMRs were the disruptive thing,” he explains.

“This is one of the places where healthcare technology began, and that was really energizing.”

Today, his role is more of a market analyst than technologist; he’s looking for the next disrupter that is sure to come. One significant disrupter, Walton believes, will be telehealth. “As the country moves from fee-for-service to value-based care, shifting the focus of care out of the hospital and more into the home and workplace will be the norm,” he says. “These are emerging technologies that I am extremely passionate about. We always made patients go to care, and we’re about to make taking care to the patient commonplace.”

As a big-picture thinker, Walton looks at the changes in Washington with a wary eye. On the one hand, he has great admiration for those who do the actual work of managing policy. “I worked a bit in Washington with public servants, and it was a very positive experience to see how dedicated, hardworking, and smart they are,” he says. His immediate concern is what changes will be made to the Affordable Care Act.

Longer term, he wonders how Centers for Medicaid Services (CMS) will be kept stable when some projections show that they may be in serious financial trouble within a decade. It is those civil servants, he says, who get up every morning thinking about how to keep CMS solvent and what recommendations to offer Congress and the president. The recommendations on his personal agenda include allowing cross-state insurance and licensing of physicians, improving reimbursement for tech-based care like telehealth, and bolstering tech security. “Overall, we really need to remind everyone that technology solves some problems but creates others,” he says. “What is most important is that we take a longer view of our healthcare sector and talk more about the social impacts of healthcare. We need to have harder conversations about economic disparity, education, and housing.”

On top of being a market analyst, Walton considers himself to be a servant-leader in guiding others. “I like to tell myself to work for everyone at once,” he says. In his leadership capacity, Walton strives to be a good mentor and coach, and he is a strong advocate for respecting the employees that are both higher and lower than him in the medical hierarchy. He also believes in advocating for introverted employees. “They have so much wisdom to offer, but often their voice is not heard among their extroverted coworkers,” he says.

With all the wisdom gained from more than four decades in the industry, Walton has plenty of advice to share with those interested in working in healthcare technology. Some is specific, but much of his advice can be applicable to a large variety of healthcare roles.

“Push yourself. Remember that it is a constant learning process,” he says. “Your best today won’t be your best in the future. You need excitement and acceptance of lifelong learning in order to keep your passion for healthcare alive. Though you are not physically laying hands on patients, you are still making a significant difference in healthcare.”