Houston, Miami, other cities face mounting health care worker shortages as infections climb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/houston-miami-and-other-cities-face-mounting-health-care-worker-shortages-as-infections-climb/2020/07/25/45fd720c-ccf8-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR14P9OGxTOPU8pMgjsVof7YlOAPv-vfxq2MBm9RlpYFVVa3qvpmvyIjFyA

Shortages of health care workers are worsening in Houston, Miami, Baton Rouge and other cities battling sustained covid-19 outbreaks, exhausting staffers and straining hospitals’ ability to cope with spiking cases.

That need is especially dire for front-line nurses, respiratory therapists and others who play hands-on, bedside roles where one nurse is often required for each critically ill patient.

While many hospitals have devised ways to stretch material resources — converting surgery wards into specialized covid units and recycling masks and gowns — it is far more difficult to stretch the human workers needed to make the system function.

“At the end of the day, the capacity for critical care is a balance between the space, staff and stuff. And if you have a bottleneck in one, you can’t take additional patients,” said Mahshid Abir, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and director of the Acute Care Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of Michigan. “You have to have all three … You can’t have a ventilator, but not a respiratory therapist.”

“What this is going to do is it’s going to cost lives, not just for covid patients, but for everyone else in the hospital,” she warned.

The increasingly fraught situation reflects packed hospitals across large swaths of the country: More than 8,800 covid patients are hospitalized in Texas; Florida has more than 9,400; and at least 13 other states also have thousands of hospitalizations, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Facilities in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Indiana, have in recent weeks reported shortages of such workers, according to federal planning documents viewed by The Post, pitting states and hospitals against one another to recruit staff.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he asked the federal government to send in 700 health-care workers to assist besieged hospitals.

“Even if for some strange reason … you don’t care about covid-19, you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke, or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said at a news conference.

In Florida, 39 hospitals have requested help from the state for respiratory therapists, nurses and nursing assistants. In South Carolina, the National Guard is sending 40 medical professionals to five hospitals in response to rising cases.

Many medical facilities anticipate their staffing problems will deteriorate, according to the planning documents: Texas is hardest hit, with South Carolina close behind. Needs range from pharmacists to physicians.

Hot spots stretch across the country, from Miami and Atlanta to Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley, and the demands for help are as diffuse as the suffering.

“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks with these three major states,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said Friday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

But today’s diffuse transmission requires innovative thinking and a different response from months ago in New York, say experts. While some doctors have been able to share expertise online and nurses have teamed up to relieve pressures, the overall strains are growing.

“We missed the boat,” said Serena Bumpus, a leader of multiple Texas nursing organizations and regional director of nursing for the Austin Round Rock Region of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Bumpus blames a lack of coordination at national and state officials. “It feels like this free-for-all,” she said, “and each organization is just kind of left up to their own devices to try to figure this out.”

In a disaster, a hospital or local health system typically brings in help from neighboring communities. But that standard emergency protocol, which comes into play following a hurricane or tornado, “is predicated on the notion that you’ll have a concentrated area of impact,” said Christopher Nelson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

That is how Texas has functioned in the past, said Jennifer Banda, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, recalling the influx of temporary help after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston three years ago.

It is how the response took shape early in the outbreak, when health-care workers headed to hard-hit New York.

But the sustained and far-flung nature of the pandemic has made that approach unworkable. “The challenge right now,” Banda said, “is we are taxing the system all across the country.”

Theresa Q. Tran, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, began to feel the crunch in June. Only a few weeks before, she had texted a friend to say how disheartening it was to see crowds of people reveling outdoors without masks on Memorial Day weekend.

Her fears were borne out when she found herself making call after call after call from her ER, unable to admit a critically ill patient because her hospital had run out of ICU space, but unable to find a hospital able to take them.

Under normal circumstances, the transfer of such patients — “where you’re afraid to look away, or to blink, because they may just crash on you,” as Tran describes them — happens quickly to ensure the close monitoring the ICU affords.

Those critical patients begin to stall in the ER, stretching the abilities of the nurses and doctors attending to them. “A lot of people, they come in, and they need attention immediately,” Tran said, noting that emergency physicians are constantly racing against time. “Time is brain, or time is heart.”

By mid-July, an influx of “surge” staff brought relief, Tran said. But that was short-lived as the crisis jumped from one locality to the next, with the emergency procedures to bring in more staff never quite keeping up with the rising infections.

An ER physician in the Rio Grande Valley said all three of the major trauma hospitals in the area have long since run out of the ability to absorb new ICU patients.

“We’ve been full for weeks,” said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking out about the conditions.

“The truth is, the majority of our work now in the emergency department is ICU work,” he said. “Some of our patients down here, we’re now holding them for days.” And each one of those critically ill patients needs a nurse to stay with them.

When ICU space has opened up — maybe two, three, four beds — it never feels like relief, he said, because in the time it takes to move those patients out, 20 new ones arrive.

Even with help his hospital has received — masks and gowns were procured, and the staff more than doubled in the past few weeks with relief nurses and other health-care workers from outside — it still is not enough.

The local nurses are exhausted. Some quit. Even the relief nurses who helped out in New York in the spring seem horrified by the scale of the disaster in South Texas, he said.

“If no one comes and helps us out and gives us the ammo we need to fight this thing, we are not going to win,” the doctor said.

One of the root causes of the problem in the United States is that emergency departments and ICUs are often operating at or near capacity, Abir and Nelson said, putting them dangerously close to shortages before a crisis even hits.

Texas, along with 32 other states, has joined a licensure compact, allowing nurses to practice across state borders, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from other parts of the country.

Texas medical facilities can apply to the Department of State Health Services for staffers to fill a critical shortage, typically for a two-week period. But two weeks, which would allow time to respond to most disasters, hardly registers in a pandemic, so facilities have to ask for extensions or make new applications.

South Carolina last week issued an order that allows nursing graduates who have not yet completed their licensing exams to begin working under supervision. Prisma Health, the state’s biggest hospital system, said this week that the number of patients admitted to its hospitals has more than tripled in the past three weeks and is approaching 300 new patients a day.

“As the capacity increases, so does the need for additional staff,” Scott Sasser, the incident commander for Prisma Health’s covid-19 response said in a statement. Prisma has so far shifted nurses from one area to another, brought back furloughed nurses, hired more physicians and brought in temporary nurse hires, among other measures, Sasser said.

Bumpus has fielded calls from nurses all over the country — some as far afield as the United Kingdom — wanting to know how they can help. But Bumpus says she does not have an easy answer.

“I’ve had to kind of just do my own digging and use my connections,” she said. At first, she said, interested nurses were asked to register through the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry; but then the system never seemed to be put to use.

Later she learned — “by happenstance … literally by social media” — that the state had contracted with private agencies to find nurses. So now she directs callers to those agencies.

Even rural parts of Texas that were spared initially are being ravaged by the virus, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

“Unless things start getting better in short order, we don’t have enough staff,” he acknowledged. As for filling critical staffing gaps by moving people around, “even the state admits that they can’t continue to do that,” Henderson said.

The situation has become so dire in some rural parts of the state that Judge Eloy Vera implored people to stay home on the Starr County Facebook page, warning, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die.”

Steven Gularte, CEO of Chambers Health in Anahuac, Tex., 45 miles from Houston, said he had to bring in 10 nurses to help staff his 14-bed hospital after Houston facilities started appealing for help to care for patients who no longer needed intensive care but were not ready to go home.

“Normally, we are referring to them,” Gularte said. “Now, they are referring to us.”

Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said rather than sending staff to other states, his hospital has helped others virtually, particularly to support pulmonary and intensive care physicians.

“Covid has been catalytic in how we think about health care,” Yealy said, providing lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

But telehealth can do little to relieve the fatigue and fear that goes with front-line work in a prolonged pandemic. Donning and doffing masks, gowns and gloves is time consuming. Nurses worry about taking the virus home to their families.

“It is high energy work with a constant grind that is hard on people,” said Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Coronavirus has turned the regular staffing challenge at Harris Health in Houston into a daily life-or-death juggle for Pamela Russell, associate administrator of nursing operations, who helps provide supplemental workers for the system’s two public hospitals and 46 outpatient clinics.

Now, 162 staff members — including more than 50 nurses — are quarantined, either because they tested positive or are awaiting results. Many others need flexible schedules to accommodate child care, she said. Some cannot work in coronavirus units because of their own medical conditions. A few contract nurses left abruptly after learning their units would soon be taking covid-positive patients.

Russell has turned to the state and the international nonprofit Project Hope for resources, even as she acts as a morale booster, encouraging restaurants to send meals and supporting the hospital CEO in his cheerleading rounds.

“It’s hard to say how long we can do this. I just don’t know” said Russell, who praised the commitment of the nurses. “Like I said, it’s a calling. But I don’t see it being sustainable.”

 

 

 

 

“We’ve jumped past burnout to anger”

https://mailchi.mp/9075526b5806/the-weekly-gist-july-24-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

What coronavirus is doing to stressed US health workers – and why ...

Last week we wrote about an observation from some physician leaders that, paradoxically, physician burnout seemed to have waned a bit during the COVID crisis. They felt that, as clinicians rallied to provide care for patients during the pandemic, many found new purpose in the work, despite great challenges. Bureaucratic hurdles yielded to the need to make critical decisions quickly, as did regulatory barriers to telemedicine.

The piece sparked a number of doctors, most from regions now experiencing surges, to share their alternative viewpoints with us.

One employed physician wrote that, across specialties, he and his colleagues are angry. They don’t feel protected, either financially, or even for their own physical safety.

A nurse practitioner working long shifts in an emergency department overloaded with COVID patients wrote, “In April, I would have never believed that we would be scrounging for PPE at the end of July. How could this happen?” And a nephrologist redeployed to a COVID ICU shared: “With the surge in New York, it felt like the entire country was behind their doctors and nurses. I drive home past restaurants and stores filled with people refusing to wear masks. It’s so demoralizing.”

Several expressed that their employers, both health systems and payers, are “counting on our goodwill that we’ll just keep showing up.” But once the crisis passes, there may be “drastic and irrational physician revolts. Someone should be watching for it.”

These comments reveal a marked difference in physician sentiment in different parts of the country, based both on the severity of the pandemic, and the nature of the local response.  Regardless, we’d agree that the clinical workforce, both doctors and nurses, is working through a period of unprecedented stress, and for some, emotional trauma. Ensuring their stability and safety must be a top priority for every health system and medical group.

 

 

Doctors Fear Bringing Coronavirus Home: ‘I Am Sort of a Pariah in My Family’

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One doctor dreamed he was surrounded by coughing patients. “Most physicians have never seen this level of angst and anxiety in their careers,” a veteran emergency room doctor said.

SEATTLE — After her shifts in the emergency room, one doctor in Utah strips naked on her porch and runs straight to a shower, trying not to contaminate her home. In Oregon, an emergency physician talks of how he was recently bent over a drunk teenager, stapling a head wound, when he realized with a sudden chill that the patient had a fever and a cough. A doctor in Washington State woke up one night not long ago with nightmares of being surrounded by coughing patients.

“Most physicians have never seen this level of angst and anxiety in their careers,” said Dr. Stephen Anderson, a 35-year veteran of emergency rooms in a suburb south of Seattle. “I am sort of a pariah in my family. I am dipping myself into the swamp every day.”

As the coronavirus expands around the country, doctors and nurses working in emergency rooms are suddenly wary of everyone walking in the door with a cough, forced to make quick, harrowing decisions to help save not only their patients’ lives, but their own.

The stress only grew on Sunday, when the American College of Emergency Physicians revealed that two emergency medicine doctors, in New Jersey and Washington State, were hospitalized in critical condition as a result of the coronavirus. Though the virus is spreading in the community and there was no way of ascertaining whether they were exposed at work or somewhere else, the two cases prompted urgent new questions among doctors about how many precautions are enough.

“Now that we see front-line providers that are on ventilators, it is really driving it home,” Dr. Anderson said.

Doctors, nurses and other staff members in a variety of hospital departments face new uncertainty. In intensive care units, for example, health care providers must have extended exposure to people who have contracted the virus. But they know in advance of the risk they face.

In emergency departments, the danger comes from the unknown.

Patients arrive with symptoms but no diagnosis, and staff members must sometimes tend to urgent needs, such as gaping wounds, before they have time to screen a patient for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. At times, the protocols they must follow are changing every few hours.

“Many of us have trained for disasters, like Ebola and hurricanes,” said Dr. Adam Brown, the president of emergency medicine for Envision Healthcare, the largest provider of contract physicians to emergency rooms. “This is different because of the scale and scope of the disease.”

Add to that the shortage of protective gear and delays in testing, and health care workers fear they are flying blind.

Though the numbers are still low, Envision, which employs 11,000 emergency clinicians across the United States, has five times as many doctors under quarantine as it did a week ago, Dr. Brown said.

Several providers spoke on the condition of anonymity because their employers have told them not to talk to the news media.

The personal strain is cascading as the virus reaches new parts of the country. “Everybody feels the stress, but everybody is pulling together,” said Dr. K. Kay Moody, an emergency room doctor in Olympia, Wash., who runs a Facebook group with 22,000 emergency physicians. “That is what is keeping us OK.”

A few doctors said they were talking about bunking up in Airbnbs to create “dirty doc” living quarters to avoid endangering their children when they go home. Some are showing their partners where to find their passwords and insurance, should they end up in intensive care. Dr. Moody said she knew of at least one doctor whose former spouse was threatening to take their children away if the doctor went to work.

Many emergency physicians work as contractors, not hospital staff, so they will not necessarily be paid if they are quarantined. “As it stands, that is one of the most anxiety-provoking things,” Dr. Moody said, “on top of fear for your life.”

Nurses face similar challenges, though with less pay and support. An emergency nurse in Milwaukee said she bought her own goggles after hearing that protective gear was running low. A nurse at a rural hospital near Lake Tahoe in California said that the hospital was providing physicians with shower facilities as well as clean scrubs to wear, but that nurses had to wash their work clothes at home. She said that the physicians she worked with lobbied the hospital to provide clean scrubs for the nurses, but that the hospital concluded it would cost too much.

One doctor, who spoke on condition that the identity of the veterans hospital where she worked was not revealed, said the protocols have not kept up with the changing reality on the ground. When determining if a patient should get a separate room, she said, the emergency department still asks patients if they have been to high-risk countries, like China and Italy, even though community transmission of the virus has been well established.

Doctors have begun building plans for how they will ration supplies when there are more patients than their hospitals can handle. Emergency room doctors have experience sitting families down to advise discontinuing care because it would be futile. But in the United States, they are not used to making such calls based on resources alone.

Some said they were looking to Italy, where doctors on the front line have sometimes had to ration care in favor of younger patients, or those without other complicating conditions, who are more likely to benefit from it.

“If we get it all at once, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the ventilators,” said Dr. William Jaquis, chair of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Last week, Italian media reported that Bergamo, a city northeast of Milan, saw roughly 50 doctors test positive for the virus. In the region of Puglia in the south, local media reported that 76 employees had been quarantined after being exposed to patients who contracted Covid-19.

After the coronavirus broke out at a nursing facility near Seattle, Dr. Anderson sat with the leaders of his hospital, MultiCare Auburn Medical Center, to talk about how urgently they should prepare. Their hospital is ringed by nursing homes and other care facilities, and he rattled off those most at risk for fatal cases of the virus: males over 60, and those with cardiac and pulmonary problems. “I literally stopped what I was saying and realized that that was me,” he said.

He said his hospital was down to a two-day supply of surgical masks — he wears one per shift. “Those are supposed to be disposable,” he said. Now he must carefully remove and clean the mask each time he takes it off and on. “That may sound just like a nuisance, but when you’re potentially touching something that has the virus that could kill you on it, and you’re doing it 25 times a shift, it’s kind of nerve-racking,” he said.

His wife has moved to their mountain cabin, and they have given up on their retirement cruise in Europe. “I haven’t slept for longer than three hours in the past two weeks,” he said.

In the early hours of Monday morning, he could not sleep. More than 200 emails had come into his inbox since he went to bed, including news that three other health care providers had been admitted to a hospital overnight, he said.

But he plans to be at his next shift nonetheless.

“I have been doing this for 35 years,” he said, “and I’m not going to stop now.”

 

 

 

 

The top 10 questions from the 2020 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that every CEO must answer

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/strategy/the-top-10-questions-from-the-2020-j-p-morgan-healthcare-conference-that-every-ceo-must-answer.html

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As we enter a new decade, everyone is searching for something to truly change the game in healthcare over the next 10 years. To find that answer, an estimated 50,000 people headed to San Francisco this week for the prestigious J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. Every one of them is placing big bets on who will win and lose in the future of healthcare. The shortcut to figuring this out is actually a question — or 10 questions to be more precise. And what matters most is whether or not the right people are asking and answering those questions.  

While the prophets are ever present and ever ready to pitch their promises in every corner of the city, the pragmatists head up to the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis Hotel to hear from the CEOs and CFOs of close to 30 of the largest and most prestigious providers of care in the country. Why? Remember, this is an investor conference and if you want to understand any market, the first rule is to follow the money. And if you want to understand the future business model of healthcare, you better listen closely to the health providers in that room and take notes. 

What providers are saying matters to everyone in healthcare

Healthcare is the largest industry in our economy with over $4 trillion spent per year. Healthcare delivery systems and healthcare providers account for over $2 trillion of that spend, so that feels like a pretty good place to start, right? For that reason alone, it’s critical to listen closely to the executives in those organizations, as their decisions will affect the quality, access and cost of care more than any other stakeholder in healthcare.

Some will say that what they saw this year from healthcare providers was more of the same, but I encourage you to ignore that cynicism and look more closely. As the futurist William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” The potential for any health system to drive major change is certainly there and the examples are everywhere. The biggest blocker is whether they are asking the right questions. One question can change everything. Here’s proof. 

The stunning power of and need for good questions 

Last year I titled my summary The #1 Takeaway from the 2019 JP Morgan Conference – It’s the Platform, Stupid.” The overwhelming response to the article was pretty surprising to me  — it really resonated with leaders. One example was Jeff Bolton, the chief administrative officer of Mayo Clinic, who told me that the article had inspired their team to ask a single question, “Does Mayo need to be a platform?” They answered the question “yes” and then took aggressive action to activate a strategy around it. Keep reading to learn about what they set in motion. 

Soon after, I had a discussion with John Starcher, CEO of Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health, one of the largest health systems in the country, who shared with me that he is taking his team off site for a few days to think about their future. It occurred to me that the most helpful thing for his team wouldn’t be a laundry list of ideas from the other 30 healthcare delivery systems that presented, but rather the questions that they asked at the board and executive level that drove their strategy. Any of those questions would have the potential to change the game for John’s team or any executive team. After all, if you’re going to change anything, the first thing you need to do is change is your mind. 

The wisdom of the crowd 

So, I set out to figure this out: If you were having a leadership or board retreat, what are the 10 questions you should be asking and answering that may change the future of your organization over the next 10 years? I didn’t have the answers, so I decided to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, listening to all 30 of the nonprofit provider presentations, spending additional time with a number of the presenters and reaching out to dozens of experts in the market to help define and refine a set of 10 questions that could spark the conversation that fires up an executive team to develop to the right strategy for their organization. 

A special thank you to a number of the most respected leaders in healthcare who took their time to contribute to and help think through these questions: 

  • Mike Allen, CFO of OSF Healthcare (Peoria, Ill.)
  • Jeff Bolton, CAO of Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minn.)
  • Robin Damschroder, CFO of Henry Ford Health System (Detroit)
  • JP Gallagher, CEO of NorthShore University HealthSystem (Evanston, Ill.)
  • Kris Zimmer, CFO of SSM Health (St. Louis) 
  • Wright Lassiter, CEO of Henry Ford Health System (Detroit)
  • Mary Lou Mastro, CEO of Edwards-Elmhurst Health (Warrenville, Ill.)
  • Dominic Nakis, CFO of Advocate Aurora Health (Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill.) 
  • Dr. Janice Nevin, CEO of ChristianaCare (Newark, Del.)
  • Randy Oostra, CEO or ProMedica (Toledo, Ohio)
  • John Orsini, CFO of Northwestern Medicine (Chicago)
  • Lou Shapiro, CEO of Hospital for Special Surgery (New York City) 
  • John Starcher, President & CEO, Bon Secours Mercy Health (Cincinnati)
  • Vinny Tammaro, CFO, Yale New Haven Health (New Haven, Conn.)
  • Bert Zimmerli, CFO of Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City)

Here are the top 10 questions from the 2020 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference

Based on the wisdom of the crowd including the 30 nonprofit provider presentations at the 2020 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, here are the Top 10 Questions that every CEO needs to answer that may make or break their next 10 years.

1. Business model: Will we think differently and truly leverage our “platform?” As referenced earlier in this article, this was the major theme from last year — health systems leveraging their current assets to build high-value offerings and new revenue streams on top of the infrastructure they have in place. Providers are pivoting from the traditional strategy of buying and building hospitals and simply providing care toward a new and more dynamic strategy that focuses on leveraging the platform they have in place to create more value and growth. Mayo Clinic is an organization that all health systems follow closely. Mayo adopted the platform model around their ‘digital assets’ into what they refer to as Mayo Clinic Platform, which initially targets three game-changing initiatives: a Home Hospital to deliver more health in the home even for high acuity patients, a Clinical Data Analytics Platform for research and development and an Advanced Diagnostics Platform focused on predictive analytics, using algorithms to capture subtle signals before a disease even develops. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the top pediatric hospitals in the world, is leveraging their platform to drive international volume, where revenue is 3.5x more per patient. They are also making investments in cell and gene therapy, where their spinoff of Spark Therapeutics returned hundreds of millions of dollars back to their organization. Both organizations were clear that any returns that they generate will be re-invested back into raising the bar on both access to care and quality of care.

 

2. Market share: Are we leveraging a “share of cup” strategy? Starbucks had dominant share in the market against Caribou Coffee, Peet’s Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead of solely focusing on how to grab a little more market share, they reframed the definition of their market. They called it “share of cup” meaning that anywhere and any time a cup of coffee was consumed, they wanted it to be Starbucks. In that definition of the market, they had very little share, but enormous growth potential. Hospital for Special Surgery in New York is the largest and highest volume orthopedic shop in the world. Their belief is that wherever and whenever a musculoskeletal issue occurs, they should be part of that conversation. This thinking has led them to build a robust referral network, which 33 percent of the time leads to no surgical treatment. So instead of fighting for share of market in New York, they have a very small share and a very big opportunity in a “share of cup” approach. NorthShore University Health System in Illinois has taken a similar approach on a regional level, converting one of their full-service hospitals into the first orthopedic and spine institute in the state. The results have exceeded expectations on every measure and they already have to increase their capacity due to even higher demand than they originally modeled. 

 

3. Structure: Are we a holding company or an operating company? There has been a tremendous amount of consolidation over the last few years, but questions remain over the merits of those moves. The reality is that many of these organizations haven’t made the tough decisions and are essentially operating as a holding company. They are not getting any strategic or operational leverage. You can place all health systems on a continuum along these two endpoints — being a holding vs. an operating company — but the most critical step is to have an open conversation about where you’re at today, where you intend to be in the future, when you’re going to get there and how you’re going to make it happen. Bon Secours Mercy Health’s CEO John Starcher shared, “It makes sense to merge, but only if you’re willing to make the tough decisions.” His team hit the mark on every measure of their integration following their merger. They then leveraged that same competency to acquire the largest private provider of care in Ireland, as well as seven hospitals in South Carolina and Virginia. Northwestern Medicine has leveraged a similar approach to transform from a $1 billion hospital into a $5 billion health system in a handful of years. Both of these organizations prioritized and made tough decisions quickly and each has created an organizational competency in executing efficiently and effectively on mergers and acquisitions. 

 

4. Culture: Do we have employees or a team? Every organization states that their employees are their most important asset, but few have truly engaged them as a team. Hospitals and healthcare delivery systems can become extraordinarily political, and it’s easy to see why. These are incredibly complex businesses with tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of locations and thousands of departments. Getting that type of organization to move in the same direction is incredibly challenging in any industry. At the same time, the upside of breaking through is perhaps the most important test of any leadership team. JP Gallagher, CEO of North Shore University Health System, shared his perspective that, “Healthcare is a team sport.” The tough question is whether or not your employees are truly working as a team. Christiana Care provides care in four states — Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They have taken a unique approach that they frame as “for the love of health,” incorporating the essence of what they do in every communication both internally and externally, in their values and in their marketing. In a multi-state system, it is tricky to create a caring and collaborative culture, but it’s critical and they’ve nailed it. Their CEO shared that, “If you lead with love, excellence will follow.” That’s not only well said but spot-on. Creating a world-class team requires not only loving what you do, but the team you’re part of.

 

5. Physicians: Are our physicians optimistic or pessimistic? There’s a lot of concern about “physician burnout” with a reflex to blame it on EHRs, cutting off the needed conversation to dive deeper into where it really comes from and how best to address it. The challenge over the next decade is to create an optimistic, engaged and collaborative culture with physicians. In reading this, some will react with skepticism, which is exactly why leadership here is so important. One suggestion I was given was to make this question edgier and ask, “Are our physicians with us or not?” However the question is asked, the bottom line is that leadership needs to find a way to turn this into a dynamic, hyper-engaged model. A little while back I spent the day with the leadership team at Cleveland Clinic. At the end of the day, their CEO Dr. Tom Mihaljevic was asked what he would tell someone who was thinking of going to medical school. He said he would tell them that, “This is absolutely the best time to be a doctor.” His answer was based on the fact that there has never been a time when you could do more to help people. He wasn’t ignoring the challenges, he was simply reframing those issues as important problems that smart people need to help solve in the future. Those who adopt that type of optimism and truly engage and partner with their physicians will create a major competitive advantage over the next decade.

 

6. Customer: Do we treat sick patients or care for consumers? Words matter here – patients vs. consumers. Most hospitals are in a B2B, not B2C, mindset. Patients get sick, they try to access care, they check into an ER, they get admitted, they are treated, they get discharged. People get confused, anxious and concerned, then they seek not only care, but simplicity, compassion and comfort. With half of America coming through their stores every week, Walmart is already the largest provider organization that no one thinks of as they provide ‘consumer’ care, not ‘patient’ care. But they are starting to broaden their lens, and health systems will need to make moves as well. Competing with Walmart, CVS and other consumer-centric models will require a different mindset. I think Dr. Janice Nevin, the CEO ChristianaCare, captured this really well when she said, “Our mindset is that our role is to ensure everything that can be digital will be digital. Everything than can be done in the home will be done in the home.” Henry Ford Health System CEO Wright Lassiter commented, “Trust is the fundamental currency in healthcare.” Building that trust will require a digital experience in the future that is just as compassionate and caring as what health systems strive to deliver in person in the past. 

 

7. Data: Will we make data liquid? The most undervalued and misunderstood asset of health systems may be their data. While some at the conference refer to this as having the economic equivalent of being the “oil of healthcare,” the real and more practical question is whether or not your organization will make data liquid, available and accessible to the right players on your team at the right time. Jeff Bolton from Mayo commented that, “The current model is broken. Data and tech can eliminate fragmentation.” In a recent Strata survey, we asked leaders in health systems whether they had access to the information they needed to do their job, and 90 percent said no. For many health systems, data is a science project, hidden behind the scenes primarily used for research and impossible to access for most stakeholders. The call to action is activating that data to improve clinical outcomes, operations and/or financial performance. 

 

8. Cost: Are we serious about reducing the cost of care and delivering value? Affordability is a hot topic, and for good reason, as high deductible plans, price transparency and other factors have accelerated its urgency. As Intermountain Healthcare CEO Dr. Marc Harrison shared, “We have an absolute responsibility to make healthcare affordable.” While the consumer side will be a moving target for some time, the No. 1 challenge for hospitals right now is to lower their cost structure so they can compete more effectively in the future. Advocate Aurora HealthBaylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health and many others are targeting cost reductions of over $1 billion over the next few years. As most hospitals are now in a continuous process to reduce cost in order to compete more effectively in the future, organizations like Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut have implemented advanced cost accounting solutions to better understand both cost and margins. Yale is using this data to understand variation, supporting an initiative that drove over $150 million in savings. Additionally, they have combined cost data with clinical feeds from their EHR to understand the cost of harm events, which turn out to be 5x more expensive. As more providers take on risk, having a “source of truth” on the cost of care will be essential. Advocate Aurora Health CFO Dominic Nakis shared that, “We believe the market will continue to move to taking on risk.” Many of the presenting organizations shared that same perspective, but they won’t be able to manage that risk unless they understand the cost of care for every patient at every point of care across the continuum every day.

 

9. Capital: Do we have an “asset-light” strategy? Traditional strategy for health systems was defined primarily by what they built or bought. Many hospitals still maintain an “if you build it, they will come” strategy at the board level. Yet, Uber has become the biggest transportation company in the world without owning a single car and Airbnb has become the biggest hospitality company in the world without owning a single room. These models are important to reflect upon as healthcare delivery systems assess their capital investment strategy. Intermountain Healthcare CFO Bert Zimmerli refers to their overall thought process as an “asset-light expansion strategy.” In 2019, they opened a virtual hospital and they have now delivered over 700,000 virtual interactions. The number of virtual visits at Kaiser Permanente now exceeds the number of in-person visits at their facilities. With that said, there will be a balance. I really like how Robin Damschroder the CFO of Henry Ford Health System framed it: “We believe healthcare will be more like the airline and banking industry, both of which are fully digitally enabled but have a balance of ‘bricks and clicks’ with defined roles where you can seamlessly move between the two. Clearly, we have a lot of ‘bricks’ so building out the platform that integrates ‘clicks’ is essential.” 

 

10. Performance: Do we want our team to build a budget or improve performance? The most significant barrier to driving change that many organizations have baked into their operating model is their budget process. The typical hospital spends close to five months creating a budget that is typically more than $100 million off the mark. After it’s presented to the board, it is typically thrown out within 90 days. It creates a culture of politics, entitlement and inertia. According to a Strata survey of 200 organizations, close to 40 percent are now ditching the traditional budget process in favor of a more dynamic approach, often referred to as Advanced PlanningOSF HealthCare leverages a rolling approach, radically simplifying and streamlining the planning process while holding their team accountable for driving improvement vs. hitting a budget. When it comes to driving performance, SSM Health CEO Laura Kaiser captured the underlying mindset that’s needed: “We have a strong bias toward purposeful action.” Well said, and it certainly applies to all of the questions here among the top 10.

 

5 additional questions to consider

As you would imagine or might suggest, the questions above can and in some cases should be replaced with others. Additional critical questions to answer that came from the group included the following:

  1. Competition: Who else will we compete with in the future and are we positioned to win?
  2. Digital health: Are we going to be a “digital health” company, providing tech-enabled services?
  3. Affordability: How are we making care more affordable and easier to understand and access?
  4. Social determinants: Is this a mission, marketing or operations strategy?
  5. Leadership: Have we made the tough decisions we need to make, and will we in the future?

 

Start asking questions

The point here isn’t to get locked into a single list of questions, but rather to force your team to ask and answer the most important and challenging ones that will take you from where you are today to where you want to be in the future. After reviewing these questions with your team, the one additional question you need to consider is one of competency: Do you have the ability and bandwidth to execute on what you’ve targeted? In the end, that’s what matters most. While there are many interesting opportunities, too many teams end up chasing too much and delivering too little.

The next 10 years can and should be the best 10 years for every health system and every healthcare provider, but making it happen will require some really tough questions. “The current path we’re on will leave us with a healthcare delivery model that is completely unsustainable,” stated Randy Osstra, CEO of ProMedica Health System. “We need to take meaningful action toward creating a new model of health and well-being — one that supports healthy aging, addresses social determinants of health, encourages appropriate care in the lowest cost setting, and creates funding and incentives to force a truly integrated approach.”

Strong leaders are needed now more than ever. The rest of healthcare is watching, not just professionally but personally. We are all grateful to you for the extraordinary and often heroic care that you deliver without hesitation to our family and friends every day both in our communities and across our country. But now we all need you to not only deliver care, but a new and better version of healthcare. So, ask and answer these and other tough questions. We know you will do everything that you can to help make healthcare healthier for all of us over the next 10 years.