Be Prepared to Defend the Choices You Make

Inside Richard Ong’s fight to ensure Saint Vincent Health System has a strong, adaptable IT environment that serves the ultimate needs of the patient

Richard Ong, Vice President & CIO, Saint Vincent Health System

As the vice president and CIO for one of the nation’s “most wired” hospitals, Richard Ong has proven that IT can do much more than be a steward of the business. With the implementation of Saint Vincent Health System’s My Saint Vincent patient portal, an online personal health management and communication tool, Ong has answered the question he is constantly posing for himself and his team: how does our work affect the patient and align with the business objectives? Here, he shares the philosophies that have helped him serve one of the largest health-care providers in the Erie, Pennsylvania, region.


Before heading up Saint Vincent’s IT function, Ong studied and then taught at Waynesburg University, where he learned to attack information management from an academic perspective. “I was already an IT professional when I went into grad school and had a leadership role in the field,” he says, “but being able to study relevant topics in strategy and organizational behavior helped me hone my knowledge and skills.” For Ong, looking at those skills as a science, rather than just a set of practices, makes them more valuable. As a result of his academic experience, Ong prefers not to label himself just an executive or leader, but an “academic practitioner.” The term resounds with him because it encapsulates the study and the application of the skills he studied and now uses as a CIO.


Putting technology into action for the health system, or any business, Ong says, needs to be guided by a clear vision. His team of 40 is small in comparison to some, so there is little room to squander effort on nonessential work. On a micro level, Ong may be delegating tasks and prioritizing activities, but his most important job is to identify how IT aligns with the business objectives—and paramount among these is patient-centric care. One way Ong and his team achieve this is to work through physicians. “Our physicians carry the ultimate responsibility to deliver on that business objective, so they have extreme demands and expectations,” Ong says. To a create solution for physician demands, Ong’s team developed mobile technology that put patient information into a physician’s hands with ease and security. “The more access and tools we were able to give them, the better potential outcomes we could create for patients,” Ong says.


“Any time a proposal crosses my desk, the first thing I think of is how does this impact the patient?” Ong says. This question was how Ong and his team approached the My Saint Vincent patient portal, and it paved the way for its successful implementation. Now, more than 5,000 patients have already enrolled, and the portal is growing at a rate of 300–400 new enrollees per month. Offering online functionality, the portal allows patients to connect to the health system remotely. Whether they need to pay bills, request prescription refills, request an appointment, or even submit symptoms, patients can do it all without ever spending a single moment in a waiting room. “Patients have expectations, just like physicians, that  services will be available online,” Ong says. “The portal helps us directly respond to those expectations.”

“Any time a proposal
crosses my desk, the first thing I think of is how does this impact the patient?” —Richard Ong


While patient-centric care is Saint Vincent’s primary objective, close behind are the accessibility and security of information. Recently, Ong and his team have been dissecting information on their population to identify patterns in illness, which requires an ability to reach patients and interact with them. The portal is one way they’ve been able to achieve this access and share it with physicians. Ong may be an executive, but that doesn’t make him immune to the excitement of a new gadget or application. And though the impulse and the glitter of a brand name can be enticing, technologies must be validated through careful consideration. Ong is constantly vigilant that vendor relations are providing compatible solutions and complementary to Saint Vincent’s philosophies. “We utilize very strong systems with a high degree of data integrity,” Ong says. “If there aren’t any checks and balances within the system to validate that quality, it can lead to high risk.”


Ong uses a metaphor to explain the changing expectations the information function is up against given the current state of technology. “I sometimes dub it the microwave society,” he says. “We’ve developed a sort of just-add-water-solution mentality so that people expect things in a very timely, sometimes unrealistic fashion.” After 20 years in the industry, Ong remembers a time when IT was a field less understood and ubiquitous. Because he was an expert, people didn’t question his authority. “Now people have preferences and much more is common knowledge,” he says. “This forces us to be more collaborative across the business functions, and sometimes [we must] defend the decisions we make for the organization.” When defending a solution, the first place to start is to demonstrate its value. No one wants to be a guinea pig, so Ong recommends keeping prototypes in the lab and coming to the market with the bugs worked out. Show how the solution works, and it begins to sell itself.


Efficiency is another business objective that presents a constant challenge. At any given time, as much as 25 percent of the potential in Saint Vincent’s IT systems is not being realized. But Ong stresses that this is not a unique problem. If you consider any office application suite you have on a personal computer, there may be three applications you use with regularity—a word processor, a data management tool, and a project builder—and seven you’ve never opened. Ong’s world is that of health-care reform, and it is changing rapidly. He is making decisions to keep Saint Vincent compliant, but he stresses that many solutions to those changes can be found within his team and their existing infrastructure. “We typically don’t do a lot of in-house customization,” Ong says, “but we’re trying to be more contiguous in our design and support. We don’t want siloed solutions all over the place, because that can be destructive to the overall vision.” Creating a rapport across departments has been a boon for Ong, who says in his early days with the health system, frivolous and redundant solutions might have been advised by shadow IT teams. “If you can demonstrate an ability to deliver, and a willingness to partner, you’ll be viewed by your colleagues as the primary IT authority and the only IT authority,” he says.