Maia Hightower serves as University of Iowa Health Care’s chief medical information officer, but she almost became an engineer instead of a doctor.
She was an engineering student at Cornell University in New York when she traveled through Africa as part of her studies. One day, she and some fellow students stopped for a rest during a hike in Kenya.
“I saw a woman who had laundry on her back, wood on her head and was balancing a big pot of water,” Hightower said. “I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I realized that I could do anything, but this woman had very few choices.
“At that moment, I decided I was going to be a doctor. Because without our health, we can’t ever change our circumstances.”
Hightower did, in fact, become a doctor instead of an engineer, receiving her medical degree, as well as a master’s degree in public health, from the University of Rochester. She also holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
As UIHC’s chief medical information officer, she works to optimize how UIHC’s team of professionals use technology to diagnose and treat patients.
Her early focus on the human element, the epiphany that inspired Hightower to become a doctor, continues to influence her work. She and her team help UIHC’s hundreds of doctors, faculty members, medical residents and hospital staff improve the patient experience using technology while retaining the human connections essential to good health care.
“Technology, if it’s not used, is not going to have the value that it could,” she said. “It’s going to create clutter. We’re trying to minimize the distraction of technology.”
As with all professions, the medical field is awash in changes from technology — whether it’s hardware, software or the training in how to use both. Right now, Hightower said, UIHC is focusing on implementing three key technologies:
• Artificial intelligence. UIHC is working on integrating AI to detect conditions like diabetic retinopathy and to earlier predict conditions like sepsis.
• Mobile devices and how they can help access electronic medical records. Much of this involves ensuring the new electronic records are accessible and “optimized” for reading on different devices.
• Improving access to patient portals. Allowing patients more access to technology can help them better handle tasks like receiving test results, scheduling appointments and filling out medical forms.
Hightower and her team spend much of their time on “physician engagement,” providing guidance on how to meld technology and health care in a way that retains the human connection. The goal is to better connect the physician, patient and care team.
For example, the practice of “huddles” is being reintroduced. In the past, doctors and nurses would gather around a patient, studying a paper chart. “Because that chart wasn’t mobile, it actually demanded communication,” Hightower said. “The insight of talking can be lost, if we’re not careful.”
Some physicians also need help accepting the learning curve that may come with technology. “Some doctors are really good on computers, and some are not,” Hightower said. “And sometimes, doctors are so used to being the expert that struggling with the computer can be damaging to that message of being the expert. Patients are forgiving, but it’s doctors that can be hard on themselves.”
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Hightower’s team spends a lot of time meeting informally with physicians, talking about any unease they may have about technology. Hightower chose these team members for their compassion, empathy and ability to help others. They check in regularly with physicians about how they’re using and feeling about technology, and mentoring them on areas where they may struggle.
In addition to working with current doctors, Hightower also helps train medical students. “She exposes the (medical) student population to current and emerging health IT trends, and has an impact on these students as they are determining their career paths,” said Lee Carmen, associate vice president for information systems at UIHC. H