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UW Finance Transformation

UWFT VOICES: Eric Neil, Chief Information Officer, UW Medicine; Program Sponsor, UW Finance Transformation

UW Finance Transformation

Proud to be on the Team Where it Happens

February 10th, 2021

Eric Neil has worked as a consultant for UW Medicine (UWM) for the last 12 years in various roles: Epic Billing Implementation Project Director, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for Northwest Hospital, Revenue Cycle Director, and Director of Enterprise Business Systems. He has championed several large initiatives, including providing leadership for one of the largest projects ever undertaken at UWM and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance — the implementation of a single electronic health record that will bring together inpatient, ambulatory, and specialty care, called “Destination: One.” In January 2020, he stepped into the role of CIO for UWM and serves as a sponsor and advocate of UWM’s stakeholders on the UW Finance Transformation (UWFT) program.

When Eric extols the appeal of the University of Washington and UWM, it’s easy to imagine his enthusiasm is as strong now as it was when he first began working at the institution. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else,” he says.

It was UWM’s mission that first captivated him: “To improve the health of the public. We advance this mission through our work in patient care, medical education and research.

“We could be working anyplace that’s doing something successfully,” says Eric. “We could be selling shirts, but we aren’t. We’re providing care for people, which is so very important.” Throughout Eric’s time and experience at the UW, including many years as a consultant, he came to realize that working for the UW meant working for an institution that embodied values he believed in, including a collaborative spirit, lack of top-down hierarchy and giving everyone a say.

After all, Eric’s known for using the term ‘straight talk express,’ explaining, “We have incredibly smart and creative people across the UW. If we give them all the information we have available to us, they’ll come up with the very best solutions.” He further shares, “Bring all your information to the table along with your skills and experience and I’ll bring mine. Together, we’ll build something really good. If we share less than that, we’re not doing the best for the people we serve.”

Eric oversees an IT department of 600 people and they have a monthly meeting where anybody can ask any kind of question. His staff knows he appreciates that straight talk. Eric realizes this is risky, but he also thinks the openness is healthy. “It gives everyone in the group a chance to hear the same thing and to learn the ‘why’ behind decisions. Not only does this benefit the group but it also produces a high-performing department because the team members know they are trusted.”

Working during a pandemic is challenging, Eric concedes, but it’s also given the UW another opportunity to be a voice of expertise. On COVID issues he notes, “Nationally, the University of Washington is mentioned more than any other health system, except Johns Hopkins.” He always feels an immense amount of pride to think how highly regarded the UW is around the country.

As a UWFT program sponsor, Eric plays an important role in representing UWM to the overall program, assessing progress, risks and issues, and providing input for program-level recommendations and decisions. What are the benefits of UWFT and Workday® in Eric’s opinion? It comes down to these important elements:

  • Workday enables simpler processes, reduced handoffs and fewer interfaces. “And the simpler the process,” he says, “the more reliable.”
  • The data will have “one source where it lives and one source of truth.” It will also provide transparency in parts of the business where it was hard to get data before. Plus, he adds, “At a time when we’re asked to do more with less, the need for good data is important as it leads to good decisions.”
  • There are many value-adds to be had. “Adopting a new system will make some people understandably uneasy at first,” he says. “But in a few years, we’ll look back and laugh at our old processes. This will be so much better when mature Workday users will employ the tool to its full potential and help drive improvements in their units.”

The way Eric sees it, UWFT stakeholders and Workday users need to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” He explains the development and implementation of a program like Destination: One or UWFT is not always linear. “Workday is not all forward visibility; as we build, some things will be further unveiled down the road, but those solutions in time become clear.” He makes a comparison to healthcare, empathizing, “Look, we don’t like not knowing where things are going in medicine. We want to know what the outcome will be before we even start the treatment."

But what excites Eric most about the UWFT program? The idea that we have everything we need for success. He elaborates, “Talented people working on it, the resources we need, and strong executive support committed to helping us move forward.” He sums up, “This will be a huge improvement throughout the enterprise, and I’ll be proud to know I was on the team that made it happen.”

To learn more about Eric, we asked some questions about his life, inspirations and thoughts about change.

What is your first instinct when you see changes coming on the horizon? I get excited -- there are always opportunities intertwined with the coming change, but sometimes those opportunities are hidden or not understood on the frontend. I think it’s fun to find those opportunities, put them front and center and focus on them, and it helps make any negative aspects of the change less painful.     

What is the biggest change you’ve ever experienced? In 2003 my wife and I had twin girls and two years later, a boy. They are wonderful blessings in our lives and the biggest and best change I’ve ever experienced. And, all three born at UW.     

What is the best example of transformation/change you have witnessed or noted in history? COVID-19 must be one of the biggest. It has been a reset on how we think about things, how we interact with each other and how we focus on family and friends. It has accelerated many changes, especially remote/virtual business, education and clinical interactions, and technology has been key. UW is a leader in our community and as leaders we must find the opportunities during this crisis and make sure we are taking advantage of them to make positive changes for ourselves and others. Of course, through all this, I really miss being able to travel, and worry about my mom and other older family members.

What one or two tips do you have for people facing challenges/change? You never know the challenges a person is facing behind the scenes, but a tip that works for me is to pause, sometimes multiple times a day, and think about something I am grateful for. A spirit of gratitude is calming, removes some of the negative energy/fog in my mind and lets me more easily identify and focus on the path forward.

What lessons have you learned from UWM’s Destination: One program that could be applied to the UWFT program? 1) There are usually multiple ways to get to the same destination; be quick to be flexible, but if you take a different path, own it and ensure its success. 2) We have a highly collaborative culture and it’s one of the reasons working at the UW is so rewarding for each of us; bring the right people together to problem solve and get out of their way, but always be crisp upfront on who will make the decision and by when. 3) Don’t kick too many cans down the road because someday soon, you’ll be buried under an avalanche of cans.

What excites you about how technology can help improve our lives (personally and professionally)? All of us have been thinking about the racial injustice in our country and what we can do within our sphere of influence. Lately, I’ve been thinking about access and opportunity and how we can use technology to give everyone across our country the same resources, same education and same access to healthcare, no matter where you live, how much money your family has, what insurance you have or how good your local school might be. At this point in our nation’s history, we should commit to ensuring that everyone has a good internet connection and a computer. This is as important in education as it is in health care. This must be one of our nation’s priority infrastructure projects because access to this technology is becoming as essential as electricity or running water. My name is Eric Neil and I ask for your vote…just kidding. 

What is a word or phrase most overused at UW? Pivot. Levers. 

Do you have a most treasured possession or a cherished collection? I have an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle that my Dad and I worked on together before he passed away 15 years ago. I haven’t ridden it since, but I’ve been thinking about getting it running again during COVID. Running or not, I wouldn’t sell it for the world.

Who is your favorite writer or fiction hero? I don’t really have any favorites, but I just looked at my library in my Audible app and here are five books that I’ve read/listened to recently. (Please don’t judge.)

Grit, by Angela Duckworth (second time)
Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh
Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss
Own the Moment, by Carl Lentz
Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle

What do you most value in your friends or colleagues? I always say that people are the best part. I love hearing other people’s stories and I love telling stories. The journey of working with others as colleagues and becoming more and more connected, relying on each other and trusting each other is an important process for me. For example, did you know the Band-Aids® on Aaron Powell’s [Vice President, UW-IT] hands the other day were because he and his son had worked over the weekend to replace the steering on his old Dodge truck? Or that Ed Loftus [Assistant Vice President, UWFT] is a bit superstitious about his beard because he let it grow on his last Workday implementation and the project was a success? I love developing these relationships because it helps me support them as individuals and root for their success. It’s a two-way street. Whenever people around me are successful, I’m successful. 

How do you spend your time when you’re not at work? I constantly have a project or two going on in the house or the yard. I grew up on a large farm in the Midwest and was always working with my hands, fixing something, building something. I’ve been known to fix a neighbor’s clothes dryer or help build a deck, just because I think it’s fun. Until recently, we also spent a lot of time with our kids’ activities – soccer, rowing, football, basketball, Girl Scouts, church, etc. Some of the rec-league girls’ teams I’ve coached were legendary (in my own mind) -- Blue Thunder, Red Lightning and who could forget the sixth-grade girls basketball team -- The Angry Birds!


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