The Grill: Harry Lukens

The Grill: Harry Lukens

Back in 1994, Lehigh Valley Health Network, a two-hospital system based in Allentown, Pa., had a high IT personnel turnover rate. Today, that rate hovers around one per cent, and if you ask employees why, they point to CIO Harry Lukens. Over the past 16 years as the head of a 140-person IT department, Lukens has stuck by a few principles that have served him well: Treat others as you'd like to be treated, no idea is awful, and build a tight team by serving the greater community together.

Harry Lukens

Title: CIO

Organization: Lehigh Valley Health Network

Location: Allentown, Pa.

The most interesting thing people don't know about you: I find fishing quite relaxing after a crazy day.

Life's ambition: I'm not sure what I'd ask for on a wish list. I love this job. This is the best job I've ever had. If you have a great marriage, a great family life, and good health and a good job, what else do you need?

Philosophy in a nutshell: Treat people the same way you want to be treated.

Best book you've read recently: Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War, by Thomas G. Andrews

Lehigh Valley has received many awards and accolades over the past decade. This year, the network was named a "100 Most Wired" and "25 Most Wireless" hospital by Hospitals and Health Networks magazine. But Lukens is most proud of Lehigh Valley's place on Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT list for two years running.

How long has your hospital been wireless? We actually had a wireless network in place here in 1997. We got into that game because I do rounds with the docs just to see how life is. One of the things I noticed is the way a physician had to practice. He comes into a unit, sits down on a workstation, pulls up labs or whatever, then logs off and goes and sees the patient. Then he does the same thing before he sees the next patient. He was tethered to a workstation. Our idea was, let's figure out a way for docs to log on once and just keep rolling through the hospital. To do that, they needed a wireless network.

Initially, we gave them these huge, simple devices. They looked like they were three by five feet, weighed 100 pounds and had a battery life of about 10 minutes. A couple of things came out of that: We learned how to mange a wireless network, and the docs got used to carrying a wireless device that connected them to systems. Over the next bunch of years, we were able to make the wireless better, shrink the devices and put more on that device.

What is the biggest speed bump in rolling out a wireless network? It usually is the physician culture. There was some pushback in the beginning, especially with the initial wireless devices. They were ridiculous in size and weight and capabilities, but it got better. They realized how efficient it could make things; they realized they could be sitting having a cup of coffee somewhere looking at labs. But in general, our docs embrace technology, use technology, and understand that technology has its warts and you've got to work around them.

In 1999, you were also an early adopter of a computerized physician order entry system. Was that difficult to implement? When we put CPOE in place, there was lots of pushback. It was like, "Oh my goodness. I used to be able to give this lab request to a nurse, but now I have to put it in myself." But we already had wireless and the devices for it. It was just a software issue at that point. It was important for us to untether the docs to make them more efficient and make their lives better. We've had our struggles with that, but now if that thing even burps, the docs are all over that.

You have a turnover rate of only one per cent. How did you achieve that? When I came to work here, one of the things I wanted the CEO to support was a philosophy that you could do good things for the hospital and also treat people well. That's my philosophy. My people will tell you we treat them with respect. This sounds cliché, but we treat them like family. We do things here from a nontechnical sense that pulls people together. I also believe most people want to do good things but just don't know how.

When I came here, the turnover rate was ungodly high for a lot of reasons. One of the things I thought we needed to do as a department was learn to play together. So I decided I'd marry that concept with giving back to the community. We started a community service program. Over the last 15 years, every month, we do something for the community.

Last November, we had a hat, coat and glove drive for the local schools. In December -- and this is what we're famous for locally -- we decorate Christmas trees and give them to a local counsel of churches, and they give them to needy families. We provide pizza and all that stuff, and it becomes play time. At the end of the day, we give prizes for the best trees, and the trees then go to families that need them.

What is the "Wild Idea Team," and how did you come up with the concept? If you're an IT guy, you're attracted to shiny things. So often, I'd be walking through the hall here and someone would say to me, "Yo, Harry, if we bought this thing I saw, it would do this for us." Or they'd say, "Have you thought about doing this?" I was bombarded with stuff like that -- internal and external to IS. So I put together about 20 people, a group that includes docs and nurses, not just IS people. We get together once a month and talk about wild ideas. There are only two rules: No snickering, and no idea is awful. People sometimes bring the craziest ideas, but they also bring ideas we use.

Can you give us an example of a wild idea? Here's one I'm responsible for. I have two Labrador retrievers at home, so I'm reading in a magazine about how vets are using a portable ultrasound device because they can't get dogs in regular ultrasound machines. I wondered if we could use those portable devices on people. Of course, people said, "Yo, it's for dogs." I said, "OK, but it's also pending approval by the FDA." Sure as hell it gets approved by the FDA.

We show it to the docs who run intensive care, and now they use it to place lines or shunts for patients who can't move.

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