Kelly Summers Believes that Failure Is Not an Option

Shaped by his time as a software contractor for the US Air Force, CIO Kelly Summers guides his team unwaveringly through any challenge

When Kelly Summers joined Valleywise Health in 2013, he’d already had a long career in healthcare IT and executive leadership. But Summers, who’s now senior vice president and chief information officer for Valleywise, began his professional life as a software engineer for a defense contractor, providing software solutions that were used in classified, high-altitude reconnaissance mission planning for the US Air Force. That background is still evident today: he still rises before dawn every day, and anyone who has had the privilege of working with him can recite his guiding principles: “We don’t do stupid,” and “Failure is not an option.”

kelly summers
Kelly Summers, VP and CIO, Valleywise Health

“I’m so fortunate to have started off in aerospace working with the Air Force and just learning that kind of mission-critical operational discipline, that kind of rigor and process,” Summers says. His military association, with its emphasis on preparedness, helped fortify Valleywise Health’s IT department for the coronavirus pandemic.

Phoenix-based Valleywise Health (formerly Maricopa Integrated Health System) has a proud tradition of being a public safety net healthcare system with a mission and commitment to serving the underserved. It consists of three behavioral health hospitals, twelve community-oriented family health centers, and Valleywise Health Medical Center—Arizona’s only public teaching hospital and trauma center verified by the American College of Surgeons to treat both adults and children, as well as the only nationally verified burn center serving the entire Southwest. The health system was also named one of the top one hundred hospitals in the nation by IBM Watson Health in 2020.

For Summers, pre-pandemic preparedness included participating in emergency planning and drills. Back in 2017, he received support from the institution’s senior leadership and board of directors for his plan to prioritize a rebuilding of the IT infrastructure. The design of the foundation included a segmented network to optimize data protection, which means separate zones for information such as clinical data and patient information. What that meant in a pandemic, Summers says, is that they were prepared from a technology perspective.

“When the pandemic hit, we had an IT infrastructure that was solid and robust that allowed us to adapt and pivot,” he says.

The critical mission for Summers at the start of the coronavirus outbreak was managing risk to the employees of Valleywise Health. “We had to transition about 15 percent of our workforce to remote spaces or enable a work-from-home configuration,” he says. He led the secure set-up of entire functions (such as a call center) in homes and without patient disruption.

The next priority for his team became the establishment of telehealth visits, which Valleywise had never done before 2020. “We did in about a week what we’ve been trying to do in four years,” he says. In short order, they set up the technology to manage more than one hundred thousand telehealth visits in 2020. According to Summers, the key to the system’s success was focusing on enabling the video encounter through a tablet or phone, and not getting mired in the integration of telehealth with Valleywise’s electronic medical records system (EMR).

“I don’t believe that genie is going to go back in the bottle. I think telehealth is here to stay as a patient experience option.”

“Honestly, that was the accelerant because we didn’t go too complex,” he says. “We were very purposeful in picking a lightweight, easily-deployable-to-the-patient solution that also was very intuitive and easy for the provider to use.” Providers, already familiar with how to use the EMR, continue to use the same system while treating their patients via videoconferencing. Another benefit of the technological infrastructure, which was in place before the pandemic, is the ease of reminding patients, via text and phone, about appointments such as vaccination dates. “Our job is to try to stay two steps ahead of our customers, and anticipate what they’re going to need,” Summers says.

In his opinion, future research will credit telehealth with improvement in patient outcomes because it increases access to medical caregivers by removing barriers such as transportation and time constraints. “I don’t believe that genie is going to go back in the bottle,” Summers notes. “I think telehealth is here to stay as a patient experience option.”

Summers embraces what he calls an open leadership style. “I try to lead the way I always wanted to be led,” he says. He also encourages staff and leadership to respectfully challenge a decision or direction. “That way, we really strive to not ‘do something stupid.’ We don’t want to make an easy mistake.”

His decision-making relies on metrics and another precept he enjoys, quoting from Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” He created a metric which he calls DQ, or deployment quality, which tracks changes to production environments such as software, infrastructure, and biomedical configuration changes or improvements.

DQ measures how many times changes had to be tweaked or reworked. A proud moment for Summers was the close of January 2021, when 311 changes were made in production and only two of them had to be revisited, making the DQ for that month a nearly perfect rating of 99 percent. “I’m almost awestruck with the quality and discipline of my team,” he says, praising their ability to quickly deploy quality solutions for specific clinical and business needs.

He also sings the praises of healthcare workers in the trenches at Valleywise Health and around the globe. “I think it’s a broad ambition for all our IT professionals in healthcare to be able to help and enable the true frontline healthcare heroes,” he says. “We just want to be good teammates and comrades with them.”