This blog post contains an article that was originally published in the March 2015 print edition of Canadian Healthcare Technology magazine:
The Canadian Organization for the Advancement of Computers in Health is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. More commonly referred to as COACH, this stalwart of the Canadian health IT sector has consistently championed the cause of digital health and advocated on behalf of the health informatics professionals who make it possible. What does the future hold for COACH? Why should someone join COACH? I put these and other questions to Mike Barron, the current COACH president, in an interview just prior to the Christmas holidays.
Introducing Mike Barron
Ordinarily I would refer to the subject of an article by their last name; e.g. Mr. Barron. However, in this case, doing so simply doesn’t suit the personality of the man. He is one of the most affable and down to earth executives I know. He pulls no punches yet manages not to offend, no matter how blunt his comments might be. Mr. Barron just seems too formal and stuffy for such an approachable and friendly man. Instead, I will his first name.
I asked Mike how he ended up working healthcare. Mike explained that his first “main job” was with the Royal Commission on Hospital and Nursing Home Costs in the mid 1980’s. Two years later, he moved to the General Hospital Corporation in St. John’s to take on the Director of Information Systems. This role, he explained, introduced to him to the “complexities of healthcare.” It was, in Mike’s words, a “rewarding yet challenging” assignment.
At the turn of the century Mike joined the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information (NLCHI) during what he referred to as their “early days.” In 2006, Mike was appointed NLCHI’s CEO.
Given his rather demanding job, I asked Mike why he devotes time to COACH. He explained that when he first joined NLCHI, Canada Health Infoway in its formative years and he was involved in various federal / provincial / territorial (FPT) committees. These committees gave him a “taste of national vision and leadership.”
Getting involved at the board level at COACH was a natural extension of his other national roles. According to Mike, it gave him “an opportunity to participate in an organization outside government” that involved both public and private sector organizations.
Mike has devoted his working career to working in the health sector. Healthcare, Mike observed, is “something that glues us together as Canadians besides hockey” and is subject about which he is unabashedly passionate. His involvement in COACH provides him another outlet besides NLCHI to feed this passion.
When asked how COACH fits into the complex Canadian digital health ecosystem, Mike replied that it is the “glue for the health informatics environment.” While COACH is not, in Mike’s words “a one stop shop”, he does feel that it is, “a place where people from different communities can gather.”
Some people with whom I have spoken wonder how COACH is different from HIMSS, an organization with Canadian chapters that is also focused on digital health. Mike pointed out that COACH “offers more accessibility and more meaningful engagement.” While HIMSS supports a “largely private sector constituency, COACH “brings together public sector necessity and private sector reality.”
Some people have suggested that there might be economies of scale to be gained by combining COACH and ITAC Health to create the Canadian equivalent of HIMSS. I asked Mike what he thought of this suggestion. While he did not rule out the possibility in the longer term, he felt that it was important to recognize that “in the current environment, we need to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the constituencies that these groups represent” as well as “the contributions that these associations offer today.”
Mike pointed out that many of the same benefits attributed to the merging of two organizations could also be achieved by partnering. He pointed to collaborative efforts with ITAC Health and CHIMA as examples. “As Canadians, we are not predatory in nature,” Mike noted. “Partnerships are often a preferred model.”
According to Mike, membership has remained stable between 1,400 and 1,800 members. HIMSS, by comparison boasts 52,000+ members. It never ceases to amaze me how many people in the Canadian digital health community have opted not to join COACH.
I asked Mike about COACH’s plans to grow membership, a stated objective in their 2014-2017 strategic plan. He replied, “You don’t need numbers to denote success.” Instead, COACH is striving to “balance quality and quantity.” He went on to say that COACH is looking for “engaged members” who can “carry the message into various areas of the health system.”
So, why should someone join COACH? Without hesitation Mike rattled off a number of reasons, all sharing two common themes. First, COACH is one of the most effective ways for anyone with an interest in digital health to broaden their horizons. COACH, Mike observed, offers “exposure at very low cost to an extensive knowledge base” and “provides information about and exposure to different areas of health informatics.”
Second, COACH offers an opportunity to become a more active participant in the healthcare system and to join, as Mike describes it, “a complete national network of very bright and experienced healthcare professionals.”
Annual eHealth Conference
For many people, the COACH brand is most closely associated with the annual eHealth conference co-hosted by COACH. Over the past few years both revenue and attendance have declined leading some people to question the conference’s relevancy. Mike acknowledged that there is a “need to make it more applicable and attractive” but also asserted “as a conference it will remain relevant by sheer nature that it is the only national conference.”
While there are factors such as travel restrictions over which COACH has little control, Mike was emphatic that the annual eHealth conference is an event to which COACH is committed. He spoke about a number of ideas for refreshing the annual eHealth conference, starting with a “need to embrace youth.” According to Mike, COACH and its partners are “concentrating on bringing value and entertainment” and striving to “make the conference a more diverse experience.”
On a Personal Note
I closed up my interview with Mike by asking about his personal goals for his two-year tenure as COACH president. He told me that he had two goals. First, he is “very much into strengthening COACH as a sustainable entity” which, he said, was a natural extension of his involvement in the business side of COACH for many years. His second goal is “to reach out to the youth element.” He wants to create a critical mass of members under 40 years old to “carry the torch” after he and other long-time members retire.
As we concluded the interview, we spoke briefly about his life outside work. I learned that his favourite movie is any of the The Godfather movies. According to Mike, “you can always use a quote from the movie.”
I always enjoying speaking with Mike and my interview was no exception. As a ten year COACH member I was more pumped and enthused about COACH than I have been in a long time.