Relatively few HTM professionals prioritize communicating with the leaders in their organizations. Here’s why—and how—that should change.

By Chris Hayhurst

As system director for clinical engineering at Advocate Healthcare in Chicago, Steve Vanderzee, CBET, is responsible for leading all HTM services across 12 hospitals and more than 400 affiliated sites. “Our program is comprehensive,” he notes. “We take care of everything; we manage it all.”

Success, Vanderzee says, largely revolves around the skills and perseverance of the 90-plus clinical engineers and BMETs under his watch. But he’s also aware that it depends on something else—something he believes many other organizations lack.

“I think one important thing that we have as a department is great visibility among our senior leaders,” Vanderzee says. “The way we’re set up, we report to the senior vice president for support services, and then he reports to our chief operating officer.” The department also undergoes quarterly operations reviews, where Vanderzee personally sits down with the organization’s COO to give a high-level overview of his team’s performance and run through “what we’re doing well and what our challenges are.”

Which all sounds kind of bland, Vanderzee admits, until you consider how this reporting relationship factors in to almost everything his department does. “When you’re able to have that 10- or 15-minute conversation, and you’re in the room with these leaders one-on-one, you can start to build a personal and professional connection” that may pay dividends down the road.

“From my experience in other clinical engineering departments, I know this isn’t always the way it works,” he says. “Often, HTM is buried deep down in the organization; they don’t have that kind of access to the people making the decisions. Here, it’s different—we’re higher up on the food chain. And I think that’s helped us in a lot of ways.”

Getting “Time at the Table”

Steve Vanderzee isn’t the only one to notice that there’s often a great void between “the folks in the basement” and hospital leadership. “Connecting with the C-suite is not high on the priority list” for many in the HTM profession, notes Heidi Horn, vice president of healthcare technology management at St. Louis-based SSM Health. She says HTM often operates on the assumption that “‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a good thing,” but “it’s not when the C-suite is making decisions that will impact the department without getting input” from those within it, “or not fully understanding HTM’s value to the hospital.”

In her opinion, Horn says, it’s “extremely important” for the leader of any HTM department to have regular meetings with their organization’s executives in order to communicate the benefits they bring to the health system and to keep them up-to-date on their clinical equipment management program.

“They should be meeting with their COO, CNO, and CIO bimonthly or monthly; with their CFO and CMO quarterly or semi-annually; and with their hospital president semi-annually,” she says. “Set these meetings up at the beginning of the year for the whole year—and if there’s a conflict later, reschedule it” instead of cancelling.

Vanderzee agrees that HTM leaders, in particular, should do everything they can to make such meetings happen. “But if you absolutely can’t get time at the table, you should still formalize your communication in some way.” On those occasions when his meetings with executives have to be cancelled for whatever reason, he still prepares and delivers a special “one-on-one document” that lists all the key points that he planned to make.

“It would be really easy to dismiss everything and say, ‘Oh, they cancelled, so I don’t need to worry about it this month.’ But I really think that would be a mistake. You should always try to connect in a formalized way, and be consistent in your messaging each time you do, because it shows them that you’re taking this seriously and you think that this kind of communication is important.”

So how can an HTM department in any healthcare organization improve communication with its C-suite executives? And is there a way to make a connection with leadership that will not only improve your organization as a whole, but help you and your colleagues do your job as well? Vanderzee, Horn, and others share their tried-and-true tips below.

Think Like an Executive

Before you do anything else, suggests Alan Cudney, principal industry consultant with SAS Health and Life Sciences, try to put yourself in leadership’s shoes. “What are the issues that are most important to them?” asks Cudney, who holds an MBA and is a registered nurse informaticist. “Do a little research and understand the issues: They’re working in an environment of growing demands; there’s increasing complexity [and] diminishing resources. Chances are they’re going to be interested in anything that might address these problems.”

Jim Leonard, director of healthcare business development at Nashville, Tenn.-based GRM Document Management, agrees: The “best first step” for HTM, he recommends, is to obtain a copy of your organization’s strategic plan. That plan, he explains, will provide details and insight “into just what the C-level folks’ focus is going to be for the next few years from an operational standpoint.”

Research this plan in detail, he says, and only then ask for a meeting with your direct vice president so you can sit down and discuss where you fit in and determine “how your department can best support your organization’s goals.”

Approaching the C-suite with their strategic goals in mind—and framing the conversation around how your work can help them—may seem “tactical in nature,” Leonard adds, but it’s a way to get noticed and get your foot in the door. “You need to show them that you’re available not only to fight fires and deal with all the noise that HTM has to face on a daily basis, but to contribute to the organization in other ways as well.”

Focus on Value

Once you’re in the room with the appropriate people, be sure to respect their time by staying on point, Horn recommends. “People in the C-suite are very busy, and there are a lot of people wanting to meet with them.” Make sure you provide each individual you talk to with information that they personally find valuable, she advises.

That’s probably going to be different for each person, but one thing’s for sure: “None of them will really care about your planned maintenance completion rate or the number of work orders you did in a month,” Horn says. “Save that data for the Environment of Care Committee.” (Cudney feels similarly: “Align your line-of-sight with that of the executive,” he says. “If he or she is responsible for the operations of six hospitals, don’t start your meeting armed with department-level detail.”)

Vanderzee, too, notes that it pays “to be relevant” during the limited time you have to talk. “It’s easy to get bogged down in our own lingo—‘cost-of-service ratio’ (COSR), ‘mean time between failures,’ the intricacies of the equipment that we’re working on. What they really want to know is how we’re bringing value to the organization. How is what we’re doing impacting patient care? How is it reducing the organization’s overall costs? Are we improving reliability so that equipment is always ready when it’s needed?”

In these meetings, Vanderzee says, it’s imperative to focus on the business of healthcare, “not just on the business of healthcare technology management.”

Show Them You’re Worth It

For her own meetings, Horn says, unless there’s something very important she needs to discuss at length, she’ll typically only ask for 30 minutes of a leader’s time. And, like Vanderzee, she goes to any meeting she does manage to schedule armed with a document (her “Executive Update” template) that her C-suite counterpart can quickly scan to get up to speed. “It’s mostly charts and graphs,” Horn says. “It’s a way to give them the information they need in an easy-to-understand format.”

When it does come time to wade into the details, Horn suggests taking every opportunity you can to show executives what they’re getting in return for the work the HTM department does.

“Most of the C-suite will want to know how your team’s clinical equipment expertise contributed to a successful project or patient safety or satisfaction initiative,” she says. “They’ll also want to know that physicians, nurses, and other clinicians are happy with your department’s services, so report your customer satisfaction scores and show them the trend line.”

Likewise, Horn says, if the surveys that clinicians and other customers fill out include positive comments, don’t be afraid to share them. “Include a sampling. It’s always good for the C-suite to hear from others how great the HTM team is.”

What’s more “your COO, CFO, and hospital president will want to know how much money you’re saving the hospital,” Horn says. To do so, she shares her department’s COSR and compares it to national benchmarks for the average COSR for a full service contract. “Showing them how much the hospital would spend to maintain its equipment if it didn’t have an in-house HTM department really demonstrates to them the financial value your department adds and helps justify salary and training expenses,” Horn notes.

At Advocate Healthcare, Vanderzee says, cost is also a common topic of discussion. “I think all healthcare organizations are going through a lot of challenges right now in terms of how they can reduce their costs to make up for things like reductions in reimbursement.” His department, he notes, is doing its part in that regard by looking for ways to lower its own COSR. “So that’s one thing I report out to our COO on a quarterly basis so he’s aware of what we’re doing, what our goals are, and what it all means to Advocate.”

One immediate benefit of this visibility is the freedom it has given him to grow his department. “Because we’re measuring and tracking our costs and they can see how we’re making progress, almost every time I’ve proposed creating a new position they’ve approved it,” whether it was in the budget or not. “It’s been based on the understanding that as we develop our staff and in-house services, we reduce our cost-of-service ratio and we improve the quality of work in ways that outsourcing those services could not.”

Build Your Communication Skills

Vanderzee has one other word of advice for anyone with ambitions to foster a stronger connection with the C-suite: Brush up on your communication skills. “I’m still not perfect at this, but I’m working on it every day,” he says. “You need to get good at distilling the information you want to provide into one or two very clear sentences.”

SAS’ Alan Cudney concurs, encouraging HTM professionals to “succinctly state” all of their key points. He endorses the “SBAR” format—aka: situation, background, analysis, and recommendation—for any written presentation “because it puts everything in one place where it can be read in 30 seconds.” Another tip? “Socialize” a topic before you meet with other key people within your organization—something, Cudney says, that “can help straighten the path to getting your ideas accepted and approved.”

Finally, Cudney says, any time you’re presenting data, don’t forget to double-check your work. “Accuracy is so important, and that’s something I learned the hard way.” Years ago, he explains, he was tasked with presenting a clinical benchmarking study for a chief medical officer and his team. The night before the big meeting, Cudney stayed up until 2 a.m. making “final tweaks” to the analysis and its associated charts, but he didn’t take the time to proof it. “It turns out I made a major error, and it wound up hurting our credibility with that customer.”

Cudney’s lesson learned? Before any C-suite presentation, run through your facts with a fine-toothed comb. His “rooky mistake” didn’t have any long-term repercussions, he says, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be so lucky.

Chris Hayhurst is a contributing writer for 24×7 Magazine. For more information, contact chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].