What Makes a Top CIO In the NHS?

What Makes a Top Chief Information Officer (CIO) in Healthcare?

3 min read

Posted 26.02.20 by Tom Hodges

  • Leadership Insight

A report into the characteristics that help shape and form a great CIO in the NHS and the challenges they face in bringing about digital change.

We created this report in April 2016 and most of the content we believe to still be relevant today. You can download the full report.

Introduction from Jon Hoeksma, Digital Health Editor

Two consistent threads run through a long line of NHS policy papers and reviews of health service productivity. The first is that the health service, in which three-quarters of trusts are currently in deficit, needs to deliver unprecedented productivity savings.

The second, linked to the above, is that effectively used information has the potential to become the greatest strategic asset in 21st-century healthcare. Automation of paper processes, typified by patient administration systems and electronic patient record projects, is the foundation for integrated shared care, digital patient services, and personalised and translational medicine. 

Small wonder that politicians, restlessly searching for levers to change the terms of debate in healthcare, have become convinced that root-and-branch digital transformation, akin to that which has reshaped other industries, is a necessity. 

But who are the leaders that will take up the baton of digital transformation? NHS chief executives perhaps? Most chief execs and senior directors have shrewdly seen championing IT programmes as a career-limiting move. The NPfIT era continues to cast a long shadow.

Finance directors? They already hold responsibility for IT in many trusts. Maybe, but it’s a rare accountant who can look at an IT-led transformation project and see an investment rather than a cost.

For the NHS to achieve its digital ambitions, a new type of leader will be required. One able to spearhead transformation initiatives that are underpinned by information and technology. The challenge is to develop and recruit a cadre of highly capable strategic information leaders. And this is not about managing networks, hardware and phones, or providing statutory reports – vital though these aspects remain. 

Step forward the NHS CIO. As this report shows, the ideal NHS CIO needs to be both a paragon and a polymath. A strategic thinker and a great communicator able to bridge divides. They must be able to talk tech turkey, yet still, carry clinicians and senior executives. 

Jon Hoeksma

They need to be resilient, to develop great tactics while retaining a strategic focus, and to understand both the business needs and the technology. And they must be able to operate effectively in our highly regulated, heavily scrutinised, super-politicised, resource-stretched health service. 

In many industries, particularly those that continue to be reshaped by digital change, the CIO is recognised as the senior executive most likely to have a positive impact on the operational performance of an organisation. 

The role of NHS CIO must be the most senior executive in an organisation charged with ensuring it uses information as a strategic asset to transform productivity, drive improvements and remodel delivery of services. Few yet have such a clear remit.

Jon Hoeksma
Editor, Digital Health

There are without doubt many brilliant information leaders within the NHS, but relatively few have a seat on the board – still a key litmus test of the importance an organisation accords to information. 

True CIOs in the NHS remains the exception rather than the rule. Overall there are still far more IM&T directors, deputy directors of IT and senior IT managers than there are strategic information leaders. 

The current generation of NHS CIOs and IT directors is a diverse bunch from a variety of backgrounds; some have built their careers solely within the health service, others bring valuable experience from other sectors. Some come from information management, others from IT management, and others from completely different backgrounds including general management and finance.

Moves to professionalise the role and introduce standard qualifications are a major step forward but alone will not be sufficient. The fragmented NHS also urgently needs ‘rockstar’ CIOs whose reputation is built on a track record of successful delivery of transformational change and improvements.

Though the NHS struggles to compete on pay, healthcare remains an extremely rewarding vocation. Many top CIOs see the health service as a place where they can make a meaningful contribution to their community and society, and to ensure it attracts them the NHS needs to accord the role the importance it deserves. 

Jon Hoeksma
Editor, Digital Health