Christopher Longhurst, MD, brings a unique perspective to his new role as Chief Information Officer (CIO) at UC San Diego Health. As a practicing physician, Longhurst is one of only a handful of healthcare CIOs around the country who are both doctors and IT specialists.
“It definitely helps my understanding of the technology needs and opportunities in health care,” said Longhurst, a board-certified pediatrician and clinical informaticist. “I bring both the perspective and voice of the customer from hands-on experience with electronic medical records (EMRs) and other clinical technologies. It also fuels my desire to innovate and improve data systems because I can see the possibilities."
Those possibilities include exploring novel ways to integrate technology and data to improve the delivery of health care. Longhurst made impressive strides in that area during his 15 years at Stanford Children’s Health, where he served as Chief Medical Information Officer.
At Stanford, he led the organization’s decade-long EMR implementation while also championing the concept of aggregating the troves of patient data stored in EMRs to inform best practices. His efforts included publishing articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and other peer-reviewed journals along with founding Stanford’s fellowship in clinical informatics, the first in the nation to receive accreditation.
“Stanford was not easy to leave, but UC San Diego presented many exciting opportunities,” said Longhurst, who is also a clinical professor of biomedical informatics and pediatrics in the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “UC San Diego defined a position that will align the delivery of information services with clinical informatics innovations.”
As CIO, Longhurst will lead strategic planning and operations for all administrative and clinical information systems related to operating the system’s hospitals, clinics, and affiliated health care facilities. “That includes everything from information technology to support nurses, physicians and other patient care providers to overseeing IT operations and systems architecture for HR, accounting, programming and other business and administrative functions.”
In terms of magnitude, Longhurst’s area of responsibility is large. The department of over 200 people serves more than 10,000 users, supports 395 applications, including Epic, the massive electronic medical records system, and fields three-quarters of a million help desk calls annually. He is also responsible for creating standards, architectures and policies to ensure integration with the university and the UC system. “The department is full of talented and hard-working professionals, which is one of the reasons I was excited to join UC San Diego. They have a strong history of implementation.”
As he assumes his new position, Longhurst has several major initiatives in mind. One of the first up is customer service. “I’m interested in doubling down on the service component,” he said. “We support a vast array of business and clinical information systems. I want to provide a high level of service across all of these areas.”
In that vein, one of Longhurst’s first steps was to rename the department from Information Technology to Information Services (IS). “We plan to partner closely with our customers to understand their needs and workflows. We want to be proactive in finding opportunities for improvements and not just respond to help calls.”
Under the customer service umbrella, Longhurst will also focus on better aligning IT systems with business functions, an effort already under way with the department’s move to more closely integrate with the health system’s new single business office.
Another opportunity, said Longhurst, is partnering with other IT areas, such as radiology and the new centralized IT Services department on campus. “I am very excited to partner with Dr. Alex Norbash, new chair of Radiology, and Chief Administrative Officer Brendan Kremer to plan and innovate new approaches, such as upgrading or replacing radiology’s enterprise imaging systems to better align with emerging institutional needs.”
The alignment effort extends to the UC system as well, said Longhurst. “We’re exploring ways to partner with our sister UC hospitals, such as contract sharing to gain cost efficiencies,” he said. The five CIOs from UC Health meet monthly to discuss cybersecurity, cost-sharing and other opportunities to leverage scale for value. One idea under consideration is having UC San Diego Health host the Epic medical records system for UC Irvine, which currently uses a different EMR vendor, a move that could result in significant implementation savings for UCI and create new strategic opportunities for UC San Diego.
Along with maintaining and enhancing current IS services, Longhurst said another major area of emphasis will be developing IS strategies to match the system’s aggressive growth. “Anywhere there are new business partnerships, there will be an IS component,” he said, noting the recent management agreement with El Centro Regional Medical Center and new physician affiliations in the clinically integrated network.
When he’s not hunkered down in IS strategy and operations, Longhurst will focus on his long-term vision. “My personal research interest is finding ways to use the massive amounts of clinical data being collected in health records to deliver better care to patients in real-time.”
His intrigue dates back to his days as a UC San Diego undergraduate in the 1990s, studying molecular biology and computers. Following graduation, Longhurst earned both a medical degree and an MS in medical informatics at UC Davis followed by his pediatric residency at Stanford University Medical Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. “This allowed me to be involved in emerging medical IT innovations,” said Longhurst, who also served as an advisor to Google and several technology start-ups, such as Doximity. He became a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health, eventually moving into the role of Chief Medical Information Officer, while continuing to see patients part-time. He plans to do the same at UC San Diego Health.