Recognized by Health Data Management as one of the ‘Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT’, Dr. Maia Hightower is the Chief Medical Information Officer for The University of Utah Health. She has lead or collaborated a number of initiatives ranging from EMR optimization and usability, introduction of new technology and population health initiatives, quality reporting and process improvement and was cited by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of ‘50 hospital and health system CMIOs to know’.

Prior to joining the University of Utah Health team, she was the Chief Medical Information Officer and Interim Chief Population Health Officer for The University of Iowa Health Care. She joined the faculty of the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine in August 2015, after serving as Associate Medical Director for Stanford Health Care’s University Healthcare Alliance. 



What initially sparked your interest in medicine and subsequently, digital health and data science?

My ‘big bang’ moment came when I was in Kenya, where I witnessed first-hand the stark disparities in health care and health outcomes for people in developing countries compared to the US. I think once your eyes are opened to such obvious global disparities, you start seeing disparities everywhere. It becomes an opportunity for those of us who wish to enter medicine with the clear perspective of wanting to eliminate disparities.

That’s really what interested me in medicine; to have that ability to affect other humans at a very fundamental level and empower people to be their best and healthiest selves, so that they can make an impact in the communities that they serve. Ever since I began medical school and residency, I’ve always had this purpose of addressing disparities and recognized that I needed a better understanding of how healthcare works, at least here in the US, but if you look at our healthcare delivery systems and all the stakeholders that were involved, it’s pretty complex.

Hence, quite early on, I became interested in leadership as I hoped to create and evaluate new tools and approaches to address disparities. After being in clinical practice for several years, I had the chance to learn more about population health and accountable care. Recognising that I needed more training in business, I went to Wharton for my MBA. It was at that time that I could feel the power of how digitalization can transform industries, finance, and commerce. In healthcare, we tend to be a little behind others when it comes to the adoption of new technologies and innovations but that doesn’t mean we can’t transform the field and eliminate disparities with digitalization.

What exactly happened on that trip to Kenya which changed your outlook?

The key moment happened in Maasai Mara. I was fortunate enough to be in a study abroad program saw this woman about the same age as me, with a similar complexion, walking not too far away, with a baby on her back and carrying wood and water. All those responsibilities that daunt on her gave me a sense of obligation to this woman that I’d never met. I thought about all the opportunities I’d been lucky enough to enjoy, and purely due to circumstances of birth and education, the fact this woman wouldn’t.

That was when I decided medicine is one of the many areas where we can impact on individuals like her. Like me, she is entitled to fundamental care. If she or her baby becomes sick, they and the family should all be taken care of. In so many parts of the world, it is economically devastating for many when they or their vulnerable members become ill. This should never happen, We need to change this.

 What are your responsibilities as Chief Medical Information Officer?

I lead several teams, including the enterprise data warehouse. In our healthcare system, a vast majority of our data, be it clinical, operational, and research, are all stored within our data warehouse which provides end-to-end data solutions. That means, we not only store information but we also work very closely with the analytics team within our organization to manage, organize and use the information to create business intelligence tools and web applications for our community.

The second team I lead is the provider informatics team, which focuses on working with our end-users, predominantly our physicians, nurses, and other healthcare staff to ensure they are best able to utilize the electronic health records and tools and provide feedback on how we can improve them. The third is the data science services team, which serves as a concierge for our researchers by offering them data solutions including datasets, access to big data environment and some NLP tools.

The fourth team is knowledge management and mobile solution. They oversee the creation of various applications and making sure the electronic health record is more intuitive through better user design. It ensures our clinicians have the decision support tools to make the best decisions when it comes to caring for the individual patient in front of them.

Finally, I lead the digital health team, which takes care of telemedicine, including video visits, remote patient monitoring and digital front doors like asynchronous telehealth and encounters. They work with all stakeholders in the healthcare system to move certain strategies forward. We are all on a tripartite mission: providing exceptional clinical care, educating the next generation and pushing the discovery of new technologies, medicines and advancements.

What are the main challenges you often face?

We want to be able to provide the best intelligence for our community. That mean our clinicians need to be armed with the information required to deliver amazing care, our trainees need to learn to their best capabilities, our leaders to be operationally efficient and so on. Since data is so integrated into everyone’s work, ensuring the quality of data and security becomes a huge responsibility. I look at data as stewardship, we need to be good stewards for our patients’ information and technology assets so we can provide the greatest value for our healthcare system and ultimately, the greatest value for patients in our community.

Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?

I think all of us stand on the shoulders of giants. There have been so many people that influenced my career and supported me along the way. Some of the great CEOs I’ve worked with have really inspired me. Amir Dan Ruben, who was still the CEO at Stanford at that time, has been one of them. He is a very dynamic leader with a talent for communicating with passion and purpose and aligning our organizational system to provide exceptional value to patients.

Also, the late Bernard Tyson and his incredible dedication towards equity. He was a phenomenal leader that I looked up to; especially his leadership at Kaiser.

On top of this, I think my team members are also inspiring me every day and I am talking about our regular, junior analysts who come to work filled with purpose and passion like they want to make a difference in the world. That energy energizes me to be the best leader that I can be, to ensure that my team feels like the work that they do every day is for a greater purpose and that we can fulfill others’ needs. I believe fulfilling those emotional needs does make a difference and I get a lot of support and motivation from my team members.

In part two of this wide-ranging interview, Dr. Hightower reveals how she’s tackling the long history of disparity in medicine with a new model. Read it here