Senior IT executives across several Federal agencies devoted to providing healthcare discussed mission imperatives, technology design requirements, and workforce needs during a wide-ranging discussion at AFCEA Bethesda’s 14th annual Health IT event on Feb. 1.

Mission Partner Focus

Rajiv Uppal, CIO at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (MMS), said that senior IT officials within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have become more tightly integrated as partners in agency missions.

“There has been a change in the mindset that needed to happen on the IT and on the mission side,” toward the goal of tighter integration, he said.  In the past he said, perceptions on the mission side of an agency might have tended toward IT being a stumbling block, but that has evolved to IT saying, “we will work with you to solve your problems.”

“The way we have engaged with stakeholders, we have changed that model,” Uppal said. “We are now sitting down with them and getting them to engage in our decision process … so they don’t feel that IT does what IT does, and they don’t have a say.” He added, “we want to make it a combined joint effort.”

Discussing the same issue, Kshemendra Paul, chief data officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), said that the agency’s IT leaders “were at the table as a first-rank partner” during VA’s pivot to offering telework and telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic.

He emphasized that IT work at VA is fully involved with data operations, and called the VA’s Veterans Health Administration component an “anchor tenant” in that regard.

Need for Speed

George Chambers, acting CIO at HHS, said the demands of the pandemic environment have encouraged quicker action to harness technology and share it among the various agency operating divisions.

“At HHS, we had to stand up systems fast,” he recalled, while extending thanks to IT leadership in the agency’s operating divisions. “That fast-paced requirement created streamlined processes” for the agency to acquire, use, and share technologies among components, he said.

Chambers said one concern about the next phase of “new normal” is cementing those streamlined processes into place. “The processes that we were able to do, our streamlined processes … really need to be institutionalized,” he said.  Doing so, he said, “seems to be the next great step.”

Sam Michael, chief of the Information Technology Resources Branch at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said speed of creating technological tools was of particular importance during the pandemic, especially in creating systems to collect COVID-19 data from hospitals. “If we do provide services, we have to provide them quickly,” he said.

Workforce Requirements

Michael also pointed to the need for the right workforce talent to tackle projects under tight deadlines. “The workforce is absolutely critical,” he said. “You can have the most lofty plans, but if you don’t have the talent, it doesn’t matter.”

On the workforce front, Uppal said it’s increasingly important that IT staff building systems is tuned into user experience and user-centered design principles. He said technology design has changed a lot in the past decade, including “how we approach IT and build a system.”

“Now, we don’t want to approach and say build an IT system…we want to start with users…and what is that experience for them.”

To help better expose IT staff to a range of subjects, he said MMS has created a workforce resilience program with six separate tracks including customer service, cybersecurity, data science, and cloud, among others.

“We didn’t want to just provide training, and say ‘here are some courses, go take them,’ … but we try to build a community around those efforts,” he said. “The goal is not to take our staff and make them an expert … but the goal is to take our staff and make them aware” of a range of areas in which they might not be highly involved, he said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.