D'Arcy Gue

10 Indispensable Questions To Ask Potential Healthcare IT Consultants

March 15, 2016

Healthcare IT 8 Minute Read

Straight-shooting, tough and provocative.

This should be your modus operandi when interviewing anyone to provide your hospital IT consulting services, whether it’s a consulting firm or an independent. Consulting is big business, which means a big investment — or a big waste of money and time if you hire the wrong resource. We’ve put together a a list of our ten indispensable questions that will help you ensure a sound vetting process.

Why Seek a Consulting Firm?

Almost every healthcare organization sometimes needs outside help. An external consultant can offer strengths that your internal staff doesn’t have:

  • Objectivity. Since the consultant’s role by definition is usually temporary, his or her analyses and advice are not skewed by hopes for political advancement or promotion. (To make sure candidates are on that page with you, clarify the expected parameters of the project. Many consultants do hope for add-on business.)
  • Broad frame of reference. The most effective consultants are those with broad knowledge and experience derived from multiple past client engagements. They’ve seen and had to analyze a wide array of issues, and developed a variety of solutions based on their clients’ circumstances.  On the other hand, many in-house IT staff have literally grown up with the hospital. This is a great plus because they know it very well, but their longevity will have inhibited their breadth of education and experience. The consultant should have been there and done a lot of that. You have no time or money to waste on trial and error.
  • Best practice assessment and project management methodologies and models that will help ensure no stone is left unturned during their engagement. These best practices will also provide a well-documented analysis and a detailed solution-based road map for going forward.
  • Knowledge transfer to internal staff, including documentation and training that will facilitate sustainable change. When a consultant has completed the engagement, he or she should be leaving an internal staff that is ready to take over seamlessly, because the consultant has trained it to do so.

Why Should You Be Wary?

Consultants outnumber CIOs today! How do you choose the right one for your needs?  Use a selection process that may be painful to candidates, but a blessing for your organization. Healthcare is such a “hot” field of opportunity that a lot of shingles have been nailed on doors of individuals and companies that have few, and sometimes NO credentials in our very unique healthcare IT arena. Some consultants may promise that they have experience in a hospital’s particular area of concern, e.g. revenue cycle, Meaningful Use / MIPS, IT operations management, or particular systems — when in fact, they do not. Some may never have worked in a hospital, but will tell you that their superior knowledge makes such experience “unnecessary.”

These people’s positioning and even misrepresentations make a certain convoluted sense to them. Why? Our healthcare IT environment is extraordinarily fluid, so consultants must either keep up with constant change, die — or catch up on the fly when presented with a potential lucrative engagement. The latter option is an increasing enticement in the very competitive consulting world. But it presents a great risk to achieving your objectives.

So, as an introduction to our ten essential interview questions, let me emphasize:  Don’t rely on the consultant’s reputation, resume, or charisma. The first two representations may be out of date or embellished, and the latter simply a cultivated professional advertisement. Remember, consultants are also sales people. And this is not to disparage most HIT consultants. Phoenix is proud to offer authoritative consulting services, like many of our competitors. Still, like many tasks, choosing a consultant to fit your hospital’s needs requires a little homework and good tough questions.

Here are our recommendations of questions to ask potentional healthcare IT consultants:

  1. This first question may surprise you. Ask: “Why do you work in the healthcare IT industry, as opposed to others?” The candidate should be able to differentiate between the obvious choices that are available (e.g. financial, retail, manufacturing, technology industries — most of which are more lucrative for consultants), and indicate reasons for genuine interest, commitment and concern for healthcare. Passion defines the best work of most of us, and that includes these road warrior consultants. Identify that passion if it is there. If it isn’t there, beware.
  2. Ask: “What methodologies do you use for situation review, problem analysis, and recommended solutions — and can you provide documented samples?” This is a no-brainer. If the candidate cannot detail the methodologies to be applied to the engagement you can have no confidence that he or she is not going to come into your shop on a wing and a prayer. Claims of confidentiality should not win out here.The best consultants do not work on instinct alone or without methodical approaches and should be glad to provide “scrubbed” documentation.
  3. Ask: “What are the greatest strengths you can offer our organization?” This question sounds trite, but the answers could make or break your decision. Best answers should reference listening and questioning abilities; understanding of hospital environments; effective analytical skills, including drilling down to fine details without losing sight of the bigger picture; providing deliverables on time and within budget; ability to relate well to staff at all levels — from service desk agent to the CEO; and knowledge of future trends. There can and should be a variety of other strengths that are noted, that may matter strongly to you. Asking for examples is key here; do not rely on generalizations or fuzzy talk.
  4. Speaking of future trends, ask: “Where do you think healthcare and healthcare IT is going in the next ten years, and why?” If the candidate company or individual cannot verbalize an intelligent, logical big picture analysis of healthcare over the coming years, you should question whether the consulting engagement will give you the benefit of deep knowledge of the industry, including new technologies, changing fee models, interoperability and population health goals, demographic impacts and more — all of which are changing with lightning speed. A good consultant should be able to relate important trends to your hospital’s business goals, as well as its information technology and operations.
  5. A related question: “How do you think hospital IT issues and planning should relate to the organization’s strategic goals, and vice versa?” The answer should clearly indicate that the consultant grasps the centrality of IT in many organizational strategies, and discuss how IT can further those goals and potentially reduce costs. Again, ask for examples.
  6. Regardless of the issue that is presenting the need for an IT consultant, ask: “What is your experience in like hospital organizations with federal healthcare IT initiatives and compliance issues?” If the candidate consultant or consulting organization cannot be highly specific and describe more than you would ever want to hear, qualifications are suspect. Federal initiatives like Meaningful Use / MIPS, and compliance requirements  like HIPAA security affect every area of healthcare IT.
  7. Ask: “In your past engagements with hospital clients’ staffs, how have you managed the fact that you are an ‘outsider’? The mere presence of an outside consultant can be threatening to your existing staff, and can hinder open discussion of existing IT issues and problems, especially some that may be hidden in cracks. The candidate should be able to provide examples of past successes that have included creating staff trust and willingness to collaborate on finding solutions.
  8. Ask for a proposal that is focused on achieving well-defined business outcomes. The proposal should not be simply task-oriented, e.g. doing surveys and interviews, offering answers to questions, or outlining options. In turn, it is your obligation to disclose the business outcomes you need to achieve, along with related issues and factors (e.g.budgetary constraints, future plans and more).
  9. The most important question you can ask is a hidden killer: “What questions do you have of me?” After decades of hiring staff and consultants, I am still astounded by the seemingly highly qualified people who respond that we’ve told them “enough,” and will “probably have more questions once onboard.” One of the two most important jobs of a consultant is to ask questions. (The other is to collaborate on answers.) The answer to your ninth question should be a myriad of very intelligent and intuitive questions.
  10. Last question: “What will need to happen to make this engagement a success?” If a candidate’s answer does not include working with key staff, including executive staff,  and being able to collaborate with them, be wary.  External candidates cannot handle a consulting project on their own: they need employee and executive input to genuinely understand the organization’s challenges, goals, budgets, resources, existing IT infrastructure and more.

A trusted advisor. A partner. In the end, that is the job of a consultant.

As a longtime healthcare IT consulting organization, we know that being a trusted partner is the true bottom line in providing excellent services. Our clients’ successes are reasons to be proud of ourselves. When hiring a consultant, just make sure you have been convinced that he or she has many valid reasons to feel the same. I hope you are so confident about your chosen candidate that you are excited to greet and introduce him or her on Day One to everyone from your executive suite to your rank and file.

If you would like to learn more about Phoenix’ consulting services, please contact us.

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