Jim Feen has spent the past decade optimizing collaboration across Southcoast Health—a culture based on DevOps, a concept that combines software development (Dev) with information technology operations (Ops). The ideology has spread rapidly in the technical community since the early 2000s, and now the business world is realizing its bottom-line advantages as more companies seek to build and run resilient systems at scale.
Feen continues to champion IT governance and a strategic organizational structure to upgrade and optimize new IT platforms at Southcoast Health. The nonprofit, community-based health system comprises 4 hospitals and 450 providers that serve 33 communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“I’ve worked on the vendor side of healthcare IT,” says Feen, Southcoast’s senior vice president and CIO. “But as much as I enjoyed working with providers and health systems across North America, I felt compelled to give back more locally.”
Feen’s impact on and commitment to Southcoast has been felt beyond the organization, reaching all the way to the vendors he works with.
“It was a pleasure to work with Jim and his team at Southcoast Health throughout their implementation of Epic and beyond,” says Jason Mabry, CEO of Optimum Healthcare IT.
American Healthcare Leader spoke with Feen to discuss the role of DevOps in healthcare today, his new app development team, and how IT is impacting care delivery and costs at Southcoast.
Which experiences inspired you to pursue a career in healthcare?
Directly out of college, I worked as a unit coordinator in an emergency room. There I saw the impact of proper, streamlined processes in care delivery in the mid-nineties, well before the age of Meaningful Use measures. I recall working the third shift and having to run downstairs to the basement of the hospital to find a medical record for a patient in crisis in the ER, and later recognizing just how archaic it was. Having important information readily available can make a difference in helping a provider save a person’s life. It was eye-opening, knowing that there’s a huge opportunity in healthcare to create safer processes and systems through automation and technology.
How does DevOps address those needs in the healthcare industry today?
It underscores the gap that exists when vendors design technology for healthcare providers based on what they think they know about how healthcare operations function. We’ve chosen to strategically apply DevOps to solve really niche problems in areas where automation can get us a better result. We apply DevOps for things that may not be readily understood, defined, or available in the open market. We also use it to create intelligence on the programming side.
What changes did you make at Southcoast when stepping into the CIO role in 2017?
That transition happened right in the midst of completing a massive investment—a move to Epic on the clinical side and a move to PeopleSoft on the enterprise resource planning side of the business systems. I had just completed leading the implementation of those platform-change initiatives at Southcoast when my role changed. So it was a natural point for me to shift from an implementation focus to more of an operational and strategic focus to help our organization, group leaders, and providers leverage the investment our organization had made.
What is the thinking behind the recent creation of the app development team?
As a lean organization with so much growth, we’re constantly challenged to try and do more with less. So, the focus on DevOps became pivotal for us as we tried to answer some complex challenges. When we were moving fifteen different EMRs into Epic, there was an opportunity to leverage the DevOps approach not only for how we get from old to new, but what technology and apps can we put around the process that make it easier.
We’ve invested in staffing an app development team that creates workflow apps and programs—we currently have about forty different apps that solve different needs. As an example, very specific sequences need to happen when you move a patient from the emergency department to the operating room. We realized we could simplify the process by creating an app that outlines a location-based process. When the patient is here and needs to go there, it says exactly what needs to happen in our systems to do it successfully.
So, for what could have been a very complex and error-prone education process around patient movement became a DevOps initiative to simplify and standardize the conduit for managing a complex process.
“We’re constantly educating staff on how our technology can continue to challenge the status quo of traditional care delivery methods, and we’ll continue to use data in new ways to improve quality.”
Looking ahead, what are your goals for DevOps initiatives in the next few years?
There’s a lot of a transformational change that needs to occur across the system to leverage the tools and find new and innovative ways to better the business. Although we have many of the foundational blocks in place to advance the organization, we really see it as part of our stewardship to help the change management side.
We’re constantly educating staff on how our technology can continue to challenge the status quo of traditional care delivery methods, and we’ll continue to use data in new ways to improve quality. Our focus has been on systems and workflow, so from an enterprise analytics strategy standpoint, it’s going to be a heavy focus in the next three years to try to eliminate data silos and improve self-service reporting across our organization.
How does that change management component shape your overall leadership style?
One of the key characteristics in my role is simply listening and trying to understand what the need is from the provider, the tech, or the therapist. If you’re not listening, you’re not engaging. What I try to instill across my team is that it starts and ends with a level of trust that the organization has in us to hear them. We’re not only on the edge of the latest and greatest technology, but also helping them do their jobs better. It doesn’t come from having all the answers; it comes from helping smart leaders and providers derive the answers.
I truly can’t imagine doing any other job. I’m deeply passionate about the honor of serving as a CIO. We have a tremendous obligation to help facilitate better and more efficient care now more than ever.