5 trillion-dollar questions hanging over hospitals


Big questions tend to have no easy answers. Fortunately, few people would say they went into healthcare for its ease.

The following questions about hospitals’ culture, leadership, survival and opportunity come with a trillion-dollar price tag given the importance of hospitals and health systems in the $4.3 trillion U.S. healthcare industry. 

1. How will leaders insist on quality first in a world where it’s increasingly harder to keep trains on time? 

Hospitals and health systems have had no shortage of operational challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic began. These organizations at any given time have been or still are short professionals, personal protective equipment, beds, cribs, blood, helium, contrast dye, infant formula, IV tubing, amoxicillin and more than 100 other drugs. After years of working in these conditions, it is understandable why healthcare professionals may think with a scarcity mindset

This is something strong leaders recognize and will work to shake in 2023, given the known-knowns about the psychology of scarcity. When people feel they lack something, they lose cognitive abilities elsewhere and tend to overvalue immediate benefits at the expense of future ones. Should supply problems persist for two to three more years, hospitals and health systems may near a dangerous intersection where scarcity mindset becomes scarcity culture, hurting patient safety and experience, care quality and outcomes, and employee morale and well-being as a result. 

The year ahead will be a great test and an opportunity for leaders to unapologetically prioritize quality within every meeting, rounding session, budgetary decision, huddle and town hall, and then follow through with actions aligned with quality-first thinking and commentary. Working toward a long-term vision and upholding excellence in the quality of healthcare delivery can be difficult when short-term solutions are available. But leaders who prioritize quality throughout 2023 will shape and improve culture.

2. Who or what will bring medicine past the scope-of-practice fights and turf wars that have persisted for decades? 

It is naive to think these tensions will dissolve completely, but it would be encouraging if in 2023 the industry could begin moving past the all-too-familiar stalemates and fears of “scope creep,” in which physicians oppose expanded scope of practice for non-physician medical professionals. 

Many professions have political squabbles and sticking points that are less palpable to outsiders. Scope-of-practice discord may fall in that category — unless you are in medicine or close to people in the field, it can easily go undetected. But just as it is naive to think physicians and advanced practice providers will reach immediate harmony, so too is it naive to think that aware Americans who watch nightly news segments about healthcare’s labor crisis and face an average wait of 26 days for a medical appointment will have much sympathy for physicians’ staunch resistance to change. 

The U.S. could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Ideally, 2023 is the year in which stakeholders begin to move past the usual tactics, arguments and protectionist thinking and move toward pragmaticism about physician-led care teams that empower advanced practice providers to care for patients to the extent of the education and training they have. The leaders or organizations who move the needle on this stand to make a name for themselves and earn a chapter or two in the story of American healthcare. 

3. Which employers will win and which will lose in lowering the cost of healthcare? 

Employers have long been incentivized to do two things: keep their workers healthy and spend less money doing it. News of companies’ healthcare ventures can be seen as cutting edge, making it easy to forget the origins of integrated health systems like Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, which dates back to one young surgeon establishing a 12-bed hospital in the height of the Great Depression to treat sick and injured workers building the Colorado River Aqueduct. 

Many large companies have tried and failed, quite publicly, to improve healthcare outcomes while lowering costs. Will 2023 be the year in which at least one Fortune 500 company does not only announce intent to transform workforce healthcare, but instead point to proven results that could make for a scalable strategy? 

Walmart is doing interesting things. JPMorgan seems to have learned a good deal from the demise of Haven, with Morgan Health now making some important moves. And just as important are the large companies paying attention on the sidelines to learn from others’ mistakes. Health systems with high-performing care teams and little variation in care stand to gain a competitive advantage if they draw employers’ attention for the right reasons. 

4. Who or what will stabilize at-risk hospitals? 

More than 600 rural hospitals — nearly 30 percent of all rural hospitals in the country — are at risk of closing in the near future. Just as concerning is the growing number of inner-city hospitals at increased risk of closure. Both can leave millions in less-affluent communities with reduced access to nearby emergency and critical care facilities. Although hospital closures are not a new problem, 2022 further crystalized a problem no one is eager to confront. 

One way for at-risk hospitals to survive is via mergers and acquisitions, but the Federal Trade Commission is making buying a tougher hurdle to clear for health systems. The COVID-19 public health emergency began to seem like a makeshift hospital subsidy when it was extended after President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over, inviting questions about the need for permanent aid, reimbursement models and flexibilities from the government to hospitals. Recently, a group of lawmakers turned to an agency not usually seen as a watchdog for hospital solvency — HHS — to ask if anything was being done in response to hospital closures or to thwart them. 

Maintaining hospital access in rural and urban settings is a top priority, and the lack of interest and creativity to maintain it is strikingly stark. As a realistic expectation for 2023, it would be encouraging to at least have an injection of energy, innovation and mission-first thinking toward a problem that grows like a snowball, seemingly bigger, faster and more insurmountable year after year.

Look at what Mark Cuban was able to accomplish within one year to democratize prescription drug pricing. Remember how humble and small the origins of that effort were. Recall how he — albeit being a billionaire — has put profit secondary to social mission. There’s no one savior that will curb hospital closures in the U.S., but it would be a good thing if 2023 brought more leadership in problem-solving and matching a big problem with big energy and ideas. 

5. Which hospital and health system CEOs will successfully redefine the role? 

Many of the largest and most prominent health systems in the country saw CEO turnover over the past two years. With that, health systems lost decades of collective industry and institutional knowledge. Their tenure spanned across numerous milestones and headwinds, including input and compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the move from paper to digital records, and major mergers and labor strikes. The retiring CEOs had been top decision-makers as their organizations met the demands of COVID-19 and its consequences. They set the tone and had final say in how forcefully their institutions condemned racism and what actions they took to address health inequities. 

To assume the role of health system CEO now comes with a different job description than it did when outgoing leaders assumed their posts. Many Americans may carry on daily life with little awareness as to who is at the top of their local hospital or health system. The pandemic challenged that status quo, throwing hospital leaders into the limelight as many Americans sought leadership, expertise and local voices to make sense of what could easily feel unsensible. The public saw hospital CEOs’ faces, heard their voices and read their words more within the past two years than ever. 

In 2023, newly named CEOs and incoming leaders will assume greater responsibility in addition to a fragile workforce that may be more susceptible to any slight change in communication, transparency or security. They will need to avoid white-collar ivory towers, and earn reputations as leaders who show up for their people in real, meaningful ways. Healthcare leaders who distance themselves from their workforce will only let the realistic, genuine servant leaders outshine them. In 2023, watch for the latter, emulate them and help up-and-comers get as much exposure to them as possible. 

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