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Barrier Breaker: Theresa Meadows Blazes New Trails For Women In IT

Why She's Nominated for 2022 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Award

Theresa Meadows
Theresa Meadows

By Ashley Antle

Theresa Meadows’ journey into the IT space was supposed to be a temporary two-year stint. In the 1990s, the large Birmingham, Ala., teaching hospital where she was a cardiac transplant and interventional cardiologist nurse began implementing its first physician order entry system. Theresa was tapped to teach the new system to physicians given her rapport with them, but she took the job because it meant a break from working nights and weekends.

“All I heard my boss say is ‘no weekends, no nights, no holidays,’” Theresa said. “So I signed up for the job and it ended up being something that was super exciting. It was really early in the process of automating health care. I learned through that process that we can change a lot of things in health care and really improve outcomes with automation.”

That temporary role ignited a passion for health care IT. Meadows went back to school for a master’s degree in informatics. Fast forward two decades and she now holds the top IT leadership position at Cook Children’s where she is senior vice president and chief information officer. In a full-circle moment from her earliest days teaching physicians how to enter their orders electronically, Theresa led Cook Children’s through its own 18-month transition to a comprehensive electronic medical record system in 2016. Her experience as a nurse gives her the unique ability to fluently speak both the language of health care and technology and to marry the two disciplines seamlessly.

In both fields, it all comes down to problem solving, she said. And that’s where Theresa excels.

“I knew in high school that I wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed more of the analytical science parts of the job and really trying to figure out problems. How do we solve problems and how do we make things better? It’s always been my passion.”

Visionary Leadership

TM and Family ImageProblem solvers like Theresa are natural innovators—an attribute that has served her well in the innovation-forward industries of health care and technology. Under her guidance, Cook Children’s IT team has leveled up everything from health information technology to telemedicine services to access to tech tools that help patients better manage their health.

Theresa leads her 400-member team with an open door policy and a facts first focus.

“I try to be as open and transparent as possible,” she said. “I want people to tell us when things aren’t going the way they expect them to. I know it’s hard sometimes for people to share if they’re frustrated. What I always say is try to be as factual as possible. Difficult conversations are going to drive emotions no matter what you do, but if you can focus on the facts and concrete data and stay away from ‘I feel,’ ‘I wish,’ you can work through challenges.”

That approach, coupled with her problem-solving resolve, drove her team’s response to the many IT challenges the medical center faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her team helped physicians, nurses and other health providers see thousands of patients via virtual telemedicine visits. When the vaccine became available, they created a patient portal within days to support a massive drive-thru vaccination effort.

They also continued to move forward with projects unrelated to the pandemic but certainly challenged by it. Meadows’ group helped the Cook Children’s Health Plan transition to a new online platform even while most employees from both departments were working remotely from home.

“We went live during the pandemic, and we did it all through virtual support, which none of us thought could be possible,” Theresa explained. “We do about 100 projects per year on average and we did not lose any momentum during the pandemic, which is hard to believe. The whole team worked really hard. It was stressful and exciting at the same time. We did some really creative things and learned a lot. Now we are looking at how we can maintain what we did.”

In November, the IT team celebrated the opening of Peaks Tech Zone at Cook Children’s Pediatric Specialties – Prosper. The zone is believed to be a first-of-its-kind hybrid model that blends a technology lounge with an in-person help desk where guests can get one-on-one tech assistance from a health technology advocate.

Bringing the vision of Peaks Tech Zone to life was a labor of love.

“On opening day, I wanted to cry,” Theresa said. “This has been something that I’ve wanted to do for many years. We really didn’t have the resources to do it until the pandemic hit us because it drove the need for patients and families to use more health-related technology at home, and many needed help navigating it. There aren’t many benefits of the pandemic, but the tech zone is one.”

Those are just a few of her team’s accomplishments in the past year. With Theresa at the IT helm, Cook Children’s has been recognized for innovation with technology through numerous IT awards. Most recently, the medical center was named a 2021 Digital Health Most Wired organization for the fourth consecutive year and nine of the last ten years.

“Every time we get this award I’m so excited because they raise the bar and change the criteria each year,” Theresa said. “The most wired recognition is really about how you benchmark against other health care organizations. With all of the hospitals that exist in the United States, to be in this category is a really big accomplishment. So we know we’re on the right path as far as deploying the right technologies that are going to advance the organization forward.”

Barrier Breaker

Theresa has received a number of individual awards of her own, including being named Most Powerful Woman in Healthcare IT by Health Data Management from 2016 to 2019. She is a 2022 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards finalist, named by The Dallas CIO Leadership Association.

Even so, she remains in the minority within her ranks in IT.

Fewer than 20% of CIOs working at Fortune 500 companies are female. Their average length of stay on the job hovers around 3 years and 3 months, a full year and a half shorter than their male counterparts, according to research by Revolent, Information and Technology Services. Theresa is entering her 11th year as CIO at Cook Children’s.

She hopes her success sends a message to all women that there is a place for them in IT.

“I think it’s disappointing that there are so few female CIOs,” she said. “But I think the tide’s changing and people are starting to see the value in good technical skills. More women are coming into the field, but it’s up to us to foster them and bring them up.”

To young women considering a career in IT, Theresa has a few words of wisdom.

“Take on new challenges,” she said. “ Women tend to want to know every detail about something before they take it on. I would say take on things you don’t know anything about because sometimes you’ll learn something and decide that’s your new career, like when I took that first IT job and had no idea what I was signing up for.”

Balancing Act

Theresa and FamilyWhen Meadows isn’t blazing new technological trails, you’ll find her hiking, cooking and spending time with her family. She has two children—Jackson, 17, and Lucy, 19.

As her career flourished, she learned to balance the demands of work and motherhood by dedicating space to both, and she encourages members of her team to do the same.

“One of the things I learned was to be present when my family is present,” she said. “I say to my team, between 5 and 10 p.m., unless the building’s burning down, that’s when I decompress from work and spend time with my family.”

Looking Ahead

The horizon looks bright and busy for Theresa and her team as they continue to innovate new ways to upgrade and implement technology at Cook Children’s. Building a digital foot wall in every patient room at the soon-to-open Cook Children’s – Prosper is just one project currently on their plate. One of the digital wall’s many features will allow hospitalized patients to have in-room virtual consults with specialists at other locations throughout the system, making distance as a barrier to specialty care a thing of the past.

No matter how big or small the challenges to come, Theresa’s sights remain set on moving technological mountains to improve health outcomes for children in North Texas, all the while cutting a few more inroads for the next generation of award-winning female CIOs.