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Working on the frontier of healthcare IT: Sanford Health

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Few healthcare organizations have the reputation for innovation as Sanford Health. With locations in California, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ghana, China and Mexico, Sanford Health consists of 43 hospitals, nearly 250 clinics, 27,000 employees, including 1,400 physicians offering expertise in 80 specialties. The organization’s leadership has launched several influential initiatives, including global children’s clinics, genomic medicine and specialized centers researching cures for type 1 diabetes, breast cancer and other diseases. Needless to say, if you are seeking to learn how a modern healthcare organization can effectively grow and add value to its patient population, Sanford Health is a great place to consider and Arlyn Broekhuis, Chief Information Officer (CIO), offers a compelling perspective of the evolution of his organization as well as its continued mission to serve as a model of combining cutting-edge technology with the traditional values of healthcare.  

Broekhuis has worked at Sanford Health for over 30 years. He started as a developer and then he became Director of IT. As the Director of IT, he was really the CIO because there was no higher-level position in the organization at the time, however, he soon earned the title out right. It goes without saying that he has been around healthcare IT for a long time, and he has seen a great deal of change relative to healthcare IT.

(Editor’s note: To hear audio excerpts of this interview, click on the media player buttons that run throughout this article.)

Broekhuis_ Arlyn
Arlyn Broekhuis, Chief Information Officer, Sanford Health

Broekhuis: The biggest changes that I have seen have occurred in the last 5+ years. Software applications for healthcare are now becoming truly integrated and they are meeting the needs of healthcare. For my first 20+ years in this industry, we all struggled with stand-alone applications, and we followed a lot of best-of-breed approaches that really didn’t work. In the last 5 to 10 years that trend has changed and we have transitioned to integrated IT systems.

Those applications are patient centric today versus when you go back more than 10 years, they weren’t. They were departmental centric. I think that’s a significant change. The healthcare IT industry has really moved along ways in the last 10 years.

Free: One of the most significant developments in healthcare IT has been the advent of the patient portal. Sanford Health has a strong reputation for its My Sanford Chart patient portal. Could you describe how it evolved?

Broekhuis: When we selected Epic 10 years ago, the My Chart patient portal was a key component of their system. Way back then, we knew it would be significant for us, but we first had to get some of the overall infrastructure of Epic implemented before we actually implemented the My Chart component. Once we did, it was a hit with our staff. It was a hit with our patients. They all love it to this day. It’s just grown over the years to the point where we now have about 350,000 users, and we see that number continuing to expand. I can very easily envision us getting to the number of 1 million My Chart users in the next couple of years or so.

Free: My Sanford Chart is now available via an app, correct?

Broekhuis: Yes, it is.

 When we initially implemented, there was no app. [My Chart] was just based on your website, but now there’s an app for the Android, for the iPhone, for your iPad. That kind of enhances the patient portal for our patients because it just makes it that much easier to use. Most people today when they’re accessing things on the Internet, they are going to do it via their phone and if it’s not available via your phone, you’re really restricting use. Having [the app] there makes it something that someone can use all day long.

Free: There is a great deal of debate around the efficacy of some healthcare IT solutions, such as patient portals, within certain patient populations. Please describe the patient population using My Sanford Health portal today.

Broekhuis: When we first considered how My Sanford Chart would be utilized by our patients, I have to admit that we were a bit cautious in terms of our users’ expectations. In time, however, those feelings evaporated because of how well it has been received. 

It’s a mix of users out there. It’s not just young people. We’ve got a lot of people in that 60+ age group using the app. I think that the thought that this is only for young people has gone away and it has moved on to be something that all of our patients are interested in. Over time, I think we’ll have just as many users in that 50/60 + group as we do in the 30 and below group. And, as we continue to add functionality, it just expands the age range as well as expanding the number of users.

What has been really exciting to experience is the inclusion of video within the My Sanford Chart. Back in September, we added video visits via the website version of My Chart. In January, we also activated video visits for the mobile app as well, so now our patients can have a video visit using only their phone. That type of service provides added convenience for patients who desire a more modern way of approaching their care, and we believe we will see the app’s popularity to continue to grow in terms of number of its users over time.