Moving Mountains

As the inaugural chief information officer of the Association of Ontario Health Centres, Rodney Burns has helped implement a sophisticated information-management strategy for 90 of its members—a feat that required specialized knowledge, persuasive guidance, and a copius amount of teamwork

“In 2009, I was a Local Health Integration Network [LHIN] CIO, and I was asked to represent all of Ontario’s LHINs in order to ensure Community Health Centres’ [CHC] information-management strategy aligned with Ministry and LHIN priorities.

A second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, Burns uses tenets of courtesy, integrity, and perseverance in his daily work at AOHC.

Right from the start, I knew this would be a transformative project. It was the largest of its kind in Canada. And for the first time, a province-wide network of primary-care providers was moving forward with a common EMR [electronic medical record] system. I also knew there would be a very high return on investment. That’s because CHCs connect services to people who have traditionally faced barriers accessing the services they need. The information-management strategy is a major part of that mission.

Because of this project, the size of the association has quadrupled in size. It was fairly high risk to bring a very technical team into an association that had never worked so intensively on information and performance management. But it’s really become transformative for the members and for the association.Once AOHC’s membership approved the strategy, it launched a recruitment search for a CIO, and I was the successful candidate. Because I’d participated in the strategy’s development, they basically said, ‘Alright, Big Mouth, come on over and implement it.’ Within a week of joining AOHC in December 2011, we signed a $19 million contract with Nightingale Informatix Corporation.

It’s also been a highly collaborative process working with 90 individual executive directors. Because AOHC’s membership has a highly networked history, they were able to reach consensus.


“The latest personal achievement that I’m really proud of is summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with my wife for our 25th wedding anniversary. I’m still recovering from frost-bitten fingers and blisters on the feet, and I lost a couple of toe nails during the 70-kilometre, eight-day trek, but it’s all good.”

Read more about Rodney Burns outside the office here.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy bringing in exceptional people who understand our organizations as well as IT and e-health. They’re not just techies—they’re business people as well—and that’s made the biggest difference. We really focus on change management. I made sure my team was skilled in helping centres work through changes in the work flow, documenting those changes, the impact, helping to write new policies and procedures, and providing go-live and post-go-live support, and then following up on how centres can continue to get value out of these new systems.

When we sent out the request for proposal, there were more than 200 miscellaneous gaps between what was available in the market and what our sector said it needed in an electronic medical record system. Since we signed with our vendor, we’ve closed those 200 functional gaps in the EMR system down to about seven. It’s been a tough climb, and we still have a ways to go. That’s because our plans to deploy a fully bilingual EMR product, which includes all the requirements covered in the original contract with NIC, are still outstanding. A commitment to health equity guides all our efforts. So I won’t be fully satisfied until we have an EMR product that meets the needs of all our members, especially the bilingual product for our Francophone centres.

Part of my leadership style is also that of servant leader. I try to address the head, the heart, and the hands. Working with my team, our members, and committees, my premise is: pave the way, show why this makes sense intellectually, motivate the people I’m working with, create a compelling vision, and then provide tools, resources, and knowledge to move forward so that we don’t have to do it all for them centrally. This way, they can become part of the solution and move forward locally in their capacity building.”