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A conversation with Abdul Bengali

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012, at 11:09 p.m.

After more than 30 years of working for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Abdul Bengali was comfortable – too comfortable, in fact.

I used to tell my adult children that whenever you’re comfortable, it’s time for a change,” Bengali said. “Four years ago, my daughter said, ‘Dad, how’s it going?’ and I said, ‘I’m doing great.’ She said, ‘Are you comfortable?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, everything’s going good.’ And she walked away. I said, ‘My gosh, she’s telling me walk your talk, Dad, because you tell us when you get comfortable, a certain level of complacency settles in. You get stymied. There’s no new learning going on.’ And to me, I want to learn new things.”So when Bengali was offered a job as the senior vice president of information services and chief information officer for Via Christi Health, he went for it.

In his last position with the Mayo Clinic, Bengali was responsible for unified information technology, which included 1,200 IT staff and 400 contracted staff. He also worked with medical practice, education, research and administrative senior leadership to develop a 12-year IT roadmap for the future.

Bengali received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from California State Polytechnic University and earned an advanced degree in management information systems from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife, Judy, have two adult children.

His goals for Via Christi include “putting Via Christi into patients’ pockets” through their mobile devices and continuing to develop a long-term technology plan for the system.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

From a hobby standpoint, I’m a very family-oriented person. I’m very invested in my family and my two adult children. My wife and I enjoy golf. We enjoy traveling to see the kids. We also enjoy going to restaurants.

One of the things my kids love for me to do is to make my ethnic dinner. So this is something that when I first came to this country, we did not have restaurants like I wanted to have, Indian restaurants, so I started to cook myself Indian and Pakistani food.

You mentioned traveling. Where do you like to go?

Pretty much domestic. We have a cabin up north. Judy and I love the water, so we have a cabin up in Wisconsin that we bought about 10 years ago. We try to spend as much time as we can there, and that’s where most of our family reunions happen.

What is something about yourself that you find interesting?

I’m an immigrant. I was the first one in my family that came here. I think the only interesting thing is that I was the first one in my family to go as far as I could go away – from Pakistan to California is almost halfway around the world. When you’re young like that, when you’re 18, you have no fear. I did not know anybody in California, never been to California and did not know the school system here. But I said, “I’m going to go there, and I’m going to become a computer scientist.” And so, that’s the only special thing is the risk I took to come here. Maybe it was foolish on my part to do that, but it really paid off.

What was it specifically that prompted you to come to the U.S.?

In 1965, I remember my uncle who used to study abroad, from my mother’s side, my uncle came home from Germany one summer, and I remember sitting in the living room talking to him, saying, “What should I do when I get out of high school?” And he said, “Ab, you should look at something that’s happening in Western Europe called computers. I bet that’s going to be a big field in the future.”

Now this was 1965, and I didn’t even know what the computers meant, but I went to the IBM office in Karachi – they had one, believe it or not – and I took an aptitude test and scored really well, because any time you can think inside the box, computer-minded people do well. So I took my aptitude test and scored well, and I said that’s what I’m going to be and I’m going to go to the United States and get my degree in computer science. I got admitted to college in 1968.

Can you talk about some of your goals and what attracted you to Via Christi?

I’ve really learned a lot about Kansas and the opportunity that exists here at Via Christi. Via Christi is what 98 percent of the health care is in this country: It’s not coordinated, it’s fractured, and we know that. That’s what Jeff (Korsmo)’s vision is: patient-centered, high value, coordinated care. How sweet would it be if we could make Via Christi the national model of how a health care system works: integrated, coordinated, unified? A standard that provides the best, safe care for patients?

Someday I want people to fly to Wichita and say, “Hey, let’s go to Wichita to see what they are doing because they have got it figured out.”

So that’s the challenge that we have. But I believe with Jeff’s leadership and the commitment that Via Christi has, it is an organization of transition. This industry is in transition. … In my previous job, I didn’t work in this kind of environment that I do now, so I’ve got a lot of learning to do real fast.

What are some of your immediate plans for the system?

If I was to say what is the main thing that I want to accomplish at Via Christi, it is to provide Via Christi with an integrated, unified coordinated electronic health record platform that goes across the continuum of care, from the ambulatory setting to the acute setting to post acute setting to home health care. … Having a single platform really drives efficiency, drives good outcomes and improves patients’ safety, improves patient service and makes us a quality-centered health care (provider).

Our plan is we will be selected an electronic health record vendor in the next month or so and then begin this journey in the next four years in laying that very critical infrastructure.

How do plans for Via Christi fit into the Wichita market?

The Wichita market specifically is a very entrepreneurial market, which has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, but more strengths than weaknesses.

The other one is Via Christi in Wichita is not a closed system. We have doctors practicing in our hospitals that don’t work for us and we have doctors in our hospital that work for us. That’s an interesting dynamic to say how can we manage and create an integrative environment when you don’t have whole ownership to everything and anything, which makes it even more challenging and a huge opportunity to demonstrate how we can have an open system and still be integrated. …

It will be very easy to integrate and coordinate a health system that’s closed, but that’s not real life; 98 percent of health care is an open system, and Wichita is typical of that in terms of the market and the entrepreneurship and the openness by which we provide services to our patients. Therein lies the opportunity. How can we have the patient flow seamlessly from the private practice to a hospital Via Christi runs to a nursing home someone else runs to a patient’s home that’s managed by families? …

Kansas has a very interesting anatomy. That’s why I’m excited to see how we can make Via Christi the national model because it’s got the entrepreneurship, it’s got a lot of wide space, it’s got a lot of critical access hospitals, and Jeff (Korsmo) has prepared us to be an organization in transition. All of Via Christi is ready for a change and all these other trends that are in front of us.

I keep telling people there’s no better place than to be at Via Christi and to be in health care and to be in technology. It’s a trifecta.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com.

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