Dr. James Whitfill

Q&A SIIM chair, Dr. James Whitfill

June 21, 2019
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
Last year, HealthCare Business News spoke with Dr. James Whitfill, senior vice president and chief transformation officer for HonorHealth, as he headed into his first year as chair of the Society for Imaging Informatics in Medicine. Whitfill was optimistic about the future of the organization and enthusiastic about the role he would play in shepherding its development. One year later, that optimism and enthusiasm remains. HCB News recently spoke with Whitfill to get the latest.

HCB News: How long have you been involved with SIIM?
Dr. James Whitfill: I think it’s coming up on 15 years since I started, joining as a member and going to the annual meetings.

HCB News: What inspired you to rise to the level of chair?
JW: One of the things that’s really amazing about SIIM is that you can get very involved and work with senior leaders. After my first or second SIIM meeting, I remember talking to Brad Erickson who was a senior person in the organization. I talked about how great I found the conference and how I wanted to participate and the next year I got a call to put on a talk. It was a lot of fun. Within a few years, I was asked to join the board — that was in 2009. It’s important to note because recently our executive director Anna Marie Mason, after decades of service, announced that she was going to retire. So we knew the person who was going to be chair during this period of time would be serving during a time when we’d have a huge transition. We brought in a new executive director, Cheryl Kreider Cary, who’s been amazing. But we wanted a board chair during the transition who’d been around a long time and who could be that continuity as we brought on a new leader. Being able to provide that continuity was a key piece in my decision to increase my involvement. I think the other thing is that it’s an organization I feel a deep fondness for. It’s been a place where I’ve made great friends, it’s been a key part of my development. So my time as chair has been a way for me to give back on a volunteer basis to an organization that’s given me so much.

HCB News: When we talked last year, the big initiatives you were championing focused on machine learning and enterprise imaging. Are those still the big focuses? Has anything changed?
JW: I think that there are outward facing initiatives, things that our members and people in the press see, and certainly machine learning and enterprise imaging remain big areas of focus with a lot of exciting things going on. But as the chair, one of the things that I’ve been really working on is spending time on the inside of SIIM and the governance piece. We’ll be having our 40th annual meeting next year and we've certainly evolved over that time and grown as a society. Yet we haven’t necessarily looked under the covers enough. So Cheryl and I have really spent a lot of time on improving the transparency of our board and our leadership. We’ve put in evaluation processes to make sure that even the chair gets evaluated and the board evaluates itself. These aren’t necessarily exciting ideas, but it’s laying the groundwork for the next 40 years of growth. We’re not changing things dramatically, but we want its membership and its governance to be able to navigate the coming decades.

I think the other piece — and it’s definitely related to enterprise imaging — is that we know that radiology continues to play a core part within the specialty area that’s tightly tied to SIIM, but we’ve really seen how other imaging producing specialties like ophthalmology, endoscopy, pathology, wound care are continuing to evolve. You can put all that under the umbrella of enterprise imaging. One of the things we put a lot of energy into around that is how do we create a large tent so that members within these image-producing specialties can feel at home and learn and innovate at SIIM to help advance the whole field?

Since we last spoke, we’ve had some exciting developments. For example, the president of the Digital Pathology Association, Marilyn Bui, has joined our 2020 committee. That’s emblematic of the welcoming place we’re creating.

As a bigger picture, we’ve seen impressive and consistent growth in the last four years, still mostly in our traditional sections: radiologists, imaging Informatics professionals like the PACS administrators, researches, and our vendors who are members. We’ve seen definite growth in other areas as well, but primarily in those spaces. We're continuing our work to nurture growth in other image producing specialties as well.

HCB News: Beyond the Digital Pathology Association, are there other organizations that SIIM is courting?
JW: We are very open to talking to everyone and we’re open to seeing which organizations are a good fit.

HCB News: Is there anyone new to the table that SIIM is having conversations with?
JW: Absolutely! The explosion of machine learning has brought a whole new collection of vendors onto the scene and into the imaging informatics space. We’re putting on a machine learning challenge in concert with the American College of Radiology and we’re using some platforms that are traditionally used outside of healthcare in these types of AI challenges. These are just examples where we definitely have seen the landscape change pretty dramatically, where it’s not just the usual health IT companies playing within this space.

The other thing that we’ve appreciated with these interactions is that within a short period of time, the companies that come in from somewhere outside of the industry quickly realize that healthcare really is very complex. While there are images in healthcare and there are images on Instagram and Flickr, they’re not the same, and managing them and the regulations, privacy, or the lack of standardization in data tagging present unique challenges. So they’re looking for partners who really understand the healthcare landscape. It’s a ripe opportunity for good partnerships.

HCB News: Lack of standardization has to be particularly perplexing for companies not used to the healthcare space.
JW: It’s huge. Whether it’s the whole space of interoperability which is hampered by the lack of standardization, or even regular tagging of data making it hard for different algorithms to learn. The lack of standardization also means you can develop an algorithm on a particular training set, but then when you go to implement it, the experience center, the proving set isn’t the same. Due to the lack of standardization, your algorithm might fail dramatically.

HCB News: Last year when we spoke about the top challenges to SIIM members, you mentioned that many have to bridge two different spaces, starting in radiology, for instance, and then moving into the enterprise IT space. And it made it hard for others to understand the roles of those professionals and where they fit into the healthcare puzzle. A year later, is that still what you’re seeing as the top challenge?
JW: I think that’s probably just as true today. That tension is still there.

HCB News: Keeping focus on the IT space, as far as the people who’ve started their career in enterprise IT, would they be a typical SIIM member?
JW: Maybe not in the past, but then as imaging has become more important for enterprise IT to manage, all of a sudden folks in that department are looking for a place to get rapid efficient education on imaging informatics. Now, all of a sudden, they realize just to know how to manage storage, which is important, or servers, or even EHR application workflow, isn’t enough when it comes to managing the technical and workflow issues within a digital imaging department. So they come to SIIM to get the workflow and clinical imaging applications and then they find there are all these advanced topics which are very interesting to them.

HCB News: I’d imagine working more closely with the different departments and out of their silos has to help the IT professionals as well.
JW: I think that’s fairly accurate. And on a tangent, we talk about budget constraints and the cost for members to attend an annual meeting. One of the things we’re really excited about at the society has been the launch of SIIM U in the last year. So now, we’re able to offer education in an online format. We’ve had a successful use of that with our national imaging in informatics curriculum that we do with residents, in concert with the RSNA. While I think a lot of people love coming to the annual meeting for the networking, the reconnecting with friends and colleagues, for people who can’t make it, SIIM U is a great way to get access to education.

HCB News: What’s the big news we should keep an eye on from the show?
JW: I think one of the things I’m most excited about is that we’re having an even more robust hands-on set of learning opportunities at the show. So attendees won't just hear in a lecture about these different tools around machine learning and artificial intelligence, but they'll have opportunities to be in a lab, to configure them, to set them up, to train their own algorithms. I can’t think of any other event where you can get into a lab and learn how to run these things yourself. I’m really pumped about what we’re doing this year.

The SIIM annual meeting takes place this year from June 26th through the 28th in Aurora Colorado.