The 6 challenges facing health care in 2023—and how to handle them

With input from stakeholders across the industry, Modern Healthcare outlines six challenges health care is likely to face in 2023—and what leaders can do about them.

1. Financial difficulties

In 2023, health systems will likely continue to face financial difficulties due to ongoing staffing problems, reduced patient volumes, and rising inflation.

According to Tina Wheeler, U.S. health care leader at Deloitte, hospitals can expect wage growth to continue to increase even as they try to contain labor costs. They can also expect expenses, including for supplies and pharmaceuticals, to remain elevated.

Health systems are also no longer able to rely on federal Covid-19 relief funding to offset some of these rising costs. Cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates could also negatively impact revenue.

“You’re going to have all these forces that are counterproductive that you’re going to have to navigate,” Wheeler said.

In addition, Erik Swanson, SVP of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall, said the continued shift to outpatient care will likely affect hospitals’ profit margins.

“The reality is … those sites of care in many cases tend to be lower-cost ways of delivering care, so ultimately it could be beneficial to health systems as a whole, but only for those systems that are able to offer those services and have that footprint,” he said.

2. Health system mergers

Although hospital transactions have slowed in the last few years, market watchers say mergers are expected to rebound as health systems aim to spread their growing expenses over larger organizations and increase their bargaining leverage with insurers.

“There is going to be some organizational soul-searching for some health systems that might force them to affiliate, even though they prefer not to,” said Patrick Cross, a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath. “Health systems are soliciting partners, not because they are on the verge of bankruptcy, but because they are looking at their crystal ball and not seeing an easy road ahead.”

Financial challenges may also lead more physician practices to join health systems, private-equity groups, larger practices, or insurance companies.

“Many independent physicians are really struggling with their ability to maintain their independence,” said Joshua Kaye, chair of U.S. health care practice at DLA Piper. “There will be a fair amount of deal activity. The question will be more about the size and specialty of the practices that will be part of the next consolidation wave.”

3. Recruiting and retaining staff

According to data from Fitch Ratings, health care job openings reached an all-time high of 9.2% in September 2022—more than double the average rate of 4.2% between 2010 and 2019. With this trend likely to continue, organizations will need to find effective ways to recruit and retain workers.

Currently, some organizations are upgrading their processes and technology to hire people more quickly. They are also creating service-level agreements between recruiting and hiring teams to ensure interviews are scheduled within 48 hours or decisions are made within 24 hours.

Eric Burch, executive principal of operations and workforce services at Vizient, also predicted that there will be a continued need for contract labors, so health systems will need to consider travel nurses in their staffing plans.

“It’s really important to approach contract labor vendors as a strategic partner,” Burch said. “So when you need the staff, it’s a partnership and they’re able to help you get to your goals, versus suddenly reaching out to them and they don’t know your needs when you’re in crisis.”

When it comes to retention, Tochi Iroku-Malize, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), said health systems are adequately compensated for their work and have enough staff to alleviate potential burnout.

AAFP also supports legislation to streamline prior authorization in the Medicare Advantage program and avoid additional cuts to Medicare payments, which will help physicians provide care to patients with less stress.

4. Payer-provider contract disputes

A potential recession, along with the ensuing job cuts that typically follow, would limit insurers’ commercial business, which is their most profitable product line. Instead, many people who lose their jobs will likely sign up for Medicaid plans, which is much less profitable.

Because of increased labor, supply, and infrastructure costs, Brad Ellis, senior director at Fitch Ratings, said providers could pressure insurers into increasing the amount they pay for services. This will lead insurers to passing these increased costs onto members’ premiums.

Currently, Ellis said insurers are keeping an eye on how legislators finalize rules to implement the No Surprise Act’s independent resolution process. Regulators will also begin issuing fines for payers who are not in compliance with the law’s price transparency requirement.

5. Investment in digital health

Much like 2022, investment in digital health is likely to remain strong but subdued in 2023.

“You’ll continue to see layoffs, and startup funding is going to be hard to come by,” said Russell Glass, CEO of Headspace Health.

However, investors and health care leaders say they expect a strong market for digital health technology, such as tools for revenue cycle management and hospital-at-home programs.

According to Julian Pham, founding and managing partner at Third Culture Capital, he expects corporations such as CVS Health to continue to invest in health tech companies and for there to be more digital health mergers and acquisitions overall.

In addition, he predicted that investors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers will show more interest in digital therapeutics, which are software applications prescribed by clinicians.

“As a physician, I’ve always dreamed of a future where I could prescribe an app,” Pham said. “Is it the right time? Time will tell. A lot needs to happen in digital therapeutics and it’s going to be hard.”

6. Health equity efforts

This year, CMS will continue rolling out new health equity initiatives and quality measurements for providers and insurers who serve marketplace, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries. Some new quality measures include maternal health, opioid related adverse events, and social need/risk factor screenings.

CMS, the Joint Commission, and the National Committee for Quality Assurance are also partnering together to establish standards for health equity and data collection.

In addition, HHS is slated to restore a rule under the Affordable Care Act that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. According to experts, this rule may conflict with recently passed state laws that ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“It’s something that’s going to bear out in the courts and will likely lack clarity. We’ll see differences in what different courts decide,” said Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV policy and director of LGBTQ health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “The Supreme Court acknowledged that there was this tension. So it’s an important place to watch and understand better moving forward.”

Ketul J. Patel, Division President, Pacific Northwest; Chief Executive Officer, CommonSpirit Health; Virginia Mason Franciscan Health

There is no shortage of challenges to confront in healthcare today, from workforce shortages and burnout to innovation and health equity (and so much more). We’re committed to giving industry leaders a platform for sharing best practices and exchanging ideas that can improve care, operations and patient outcomes.


Check out this podcast interview with Ketul J. Patel, CEO at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health and division president, Pacific Northwest at CommonSpirit Health, for his insights on where healthcare is headed in the future.

In this episode, we are joined by Ketul J. Patel, Division President, Pacific Northwest; Chief Executive Officer, CommonSpirit Health; Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, to discuss his background & what led him to executive healthcare leadership, challenges surrounding workforce shortages, the importance of having a strong workplace culture, and more.

U.S. healthcare: A conglomerate of monopolies

The Taylor Swift ticketing debacle of 2022 left thousands of frustrated ‘Swifties’ without a chance to see their favorite artist in concert. And it also highlighted the trouble that arises when companies like Ticketmaster gain monopolistic control.

In any industry, market consolidation limits competition, choice and access to goods and services, all of which drive up prices.

But there’s another—often overlooked—consequence.

Market leaders that grow too powerful become complacent. And, when that happens, innovation dies. Healthcare offers a prime example.

And industry of monopolies

De facto monopolies abound in almost every healthcare sector: Hospitals and health systems, drug and device manufacturers, and doctors backed by private equity. The result is that U.S. healthcare has become a conglomerate of monopolies.  

For two decades, this intense concentration of power has inflicted harm on patients, communities and the health of the nation. For most of the 21st century, medical costs have risen faster than overall inflation, America’s life expectancy (and overall health) has stagnated, and the pace of innovation has slowed to a crawl.

 This article, the first in a series about the ominous and omnipresent monopolies of healthcare, focuses on how merged hospitals and powerful health systems have raised the price, lowered the quality and decreased the convenience of American medicine.

Future articles will look at drug companies who wield unfettered pricing power, coalitions of specialist physicians who gain monopolistic leverage, and the payers (businesses, insurers and the government) who tolerate market consolidation. The series will conclude with a look at who stands the best chance of shattering this conglomerate of monopolies and bringing innovation back to healthcare.

How hospitals consolidate power

The hospital industry is now home to a pair of seemingly contradictory trends. On one hand, economic losses in recent years have resulted in record rates of hospital (and hospital service) closures. On the other hand, the overall market size, value and revenue of U.S. hospitals are growing.

This is no incongruity. It’s what happens when hospitals and health systems merge and eliminate competition in communities.  

Today, the 40 largest health systems own 2,073 hospitals, roughly one-third of all emergency and acute-care facilities in the United States. The top 10 health systems own a sixth of all hospitals and combine for $226.7 billion in net patient revenues.

Though the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the DOJ are charged with enforcing antitrust laws in healthcare markets and preventing anticompetitive conduct, legal loopholes and intense lobbying continue to spur hospital consolidation. Rarely are hospital M&A requests denied or even challenged.

The ills of hospital consolidation

The rapid and recent increase in hospital consolidation has left hundreds of communities with only one option for inpatient care.

But the lack of choice is only one of the downsides.

Hospital administrators know that state and federal statutes require insurers and self-funded businesses to provide hospital care within 15 miles of (or 30 minutes from) a member’s home or work. And they understand that insurers must accept their pricing demands if they want to sell policies in these consolidated markets. As a result, studies confirm that hospital prices and profits are higher in uncompetitive geographies.

These elevated prices negatively impact the pocketbooks of patients and force local governments (which must balance their budgets) to redirect funds toward hospitals and away from local police, schools and infrastructure projects.

Perhaps most concerning of all is the lack of quality improvement following hospital consolidation. Contrary to what administrators claim, clinical outcomes for patients are no better in consolidated locations than in competitive ones—despite significantly higher costs.

How hospitals could innovate (and why they don’t)

Hospital care in the United States accounts for more than 30% of total medical expenses (about $1.5 trillion). Even though fewer patients are being admitted each year, these costs continue to rise at a feverish pace.

If our nation wants to improve medical outcomes and make healthcare more affordable, a great place to start would be to innovate care-delivery in our country’s hospitals.

To illuminate what’s possible, below are three practical innovations that would simultaneously improve clinical outcomes and lower costs. And yet, despite the massive benefits for patients, few hospital-system administrators appear willing to embrace these changes.

Innovation 1: Leveraging economies of scale

In most industries, bigger is better because size equals cost savings. This advantage is known as economies of scale.

Ostensibly, when bigger hospitals acquire smaller ones, they gain negotiating power—along with plenty of opportunities to eliminate redundancies. These factors could and should result in lower prices for medical care.

Instead, when hospitals merge, the inefficiencies of both the acquirer and the acquired usually persist. Rather than closing small, ineffective clinical services, the newly expanded hospital system keeps them open. That’s because hospital administrators prefer to raise prices and keep people happy rather than undergo the painstaking process of becoming more efficient.

The result isn’t just higher healthcare costs, but also missed opportunities to improve quality.

Following M&A, health systems continue to schedule orthopedic, cardiac and neurosurgical procedures across multiple low-volume hospitals. They’d be better off creating centers of excellence and doing all total joint replacements, heart surgeries and neurosurgical procedures in a single hospital or placing each of the three specialties in a different one. Doing so would increase the case volumes for surgeons and operative teams in that specialty, augmenting their experience and expertise—leading to better outcomes for patients.

But hospital administrators bristle at the idea, fearing pushback from communities where these services close.   

Innovation 2: Switching to a seven-day hospital

When patients are admitted on a Friday night, rather than a Monday or Tuesday night, they spend on average an extra day in the hospital.

This delay occurs because hospitals cut back services on weekends and, therefore, frequently postpone non-emergent procedures until Monday. For patients, this extra day in the hospital is costly, inconvenient and risky. The longer the patient stays admitted, the greater the odds of experiencing a hospital acquired infection, medical error or complications from underlying disease.

It would be possible for physicians and staff to spread the work over seven days, thus eliminating delays in care. By having the necessary, qualified staff present seven days a week, inpatients could get essential, but non-emergent treatments on weekends without delay. They could also receive sophisticated diagnostic tests and undergo procedures soon after admission, every day of the week. As a result, patients would get better sooner with fewer total inpatient days and far lower costs.  

Hospital administrators don’t make the change because they worry it would upset the doctors and nurses who prefer to work weekdays, not weekends.

Innovation 3: Bringing hospitals into homes

During Covid-19, hospitals quickly ran out of staffed beds. Patients were sent home on intravenous medications with monitoring devices and brief nurse visits when needed.

Clinical outcomes were equivalent to (and often better than) the current inpatient care and costs were markedly less.

Building on this success, hospitals could expand this approach with readily available technologies.

Whereas doctors and nurses today check on hospitalized patients intermittently, a team of clinicians set up in centralized location could monitor hundreds of patients (in their homes) around the clock.

By sending patients home with devices that continuously measure blood pressure, pulse and blood oxygenation—along with digital scales that can calibrate fluctuations in a patient’s weight, indicating either dehydration or excess fluid retention—patients can recuperate from the comforts of home. And when family members have questions or concerns, they can obtain assistance and advice through video.

Despite dozens of advantages, use of the “hospital at home” model is receding now that Covid-19 has waned.

That’s because hospital CEOs and CFOs are paid to fill beds in their brick-and-mortar facilities. And so, unless their facilities are full, they prefer that doctors and nurses treat patients in a hospital bed rather than in people’s own homes.

Opportunities for hospital innovations abound. These three are just a few of many changes that could transform medical care. Instead of taking advantage of them, hospital administrators continue to construct expensive new buildings, add beds and raise prices.

Adverse events in inpatient care still common

https://mailchi.mp/59374d8d7306/the-weekly-gist-january-13-2023?e=d1e747d2d8

Published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, this concerning study found that seven percent of all inpatient hospital admissions feature at least one preventable adverse event, and that nearly a quarter of all adverse events are preventable, with drug administration errors the most frequent. While the complexities behind studying adverse events make it difficult to measure progress over time, the authors assert that these episodes are still far too common, and advocate for establishing standard approaches to measure the frequency of adverse events more reliably. 

The Gist: Health systems had been making at least some progress in their decades-long effort to reduce adverse events before COVID turned the industry upside down, drawing clinical leaders’ focus to the crisis and upending industry benchmarks. 

Today’s short-staffed, traveler-dependent labor force presents yet another challenge to hospitals aiming to achieve quality benchmarks. COVID has also accelerated the outpatient shift, heightening the importance of tracking quality metrics in non-hospital settings. 

As more complex procedures are performed in ambulatory surgery centers, and more hospital care is administered at home, there’s also a concern that hospital-based quality measures are not telling the whole story on the state of patient safety. 

A rethinking of quality metrics and processes to measure and prevent adverse events across the continuum is long overdue.  

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. 

Hospitals average 100% staff turnover every 5 years — Here’s what that costs

Hospitals have been paying astronomical prices for staff turnover, according to the “2022 NSI National Health Care Retention & RN Staffing Report.”

It covers 589,901 healthcare workers and 166,087 registered nurses from 272 facilities and 32 states. Participants were asked to report data on turnover, retention, vacancy rates, recruitment metrics and staffing strategies from January to December 2021. 

The survey found a wide range of helpful figures for understanding the financial fallout of one of healthcare’s hardest labor disruptions:

  • The average hospital lost $7.1 million in 2021 to higher turnover rates.
  • The average hospital loses $5.2 to $9 million on RN turnover yearly.
  • The average turnover cost for a staff RN is $46,100, up more than 15 percent from the 2020 average.
  • The average hospital can save $262,300 per year for each percentage point it drops from its RN turnover rate.
  • To improve margins, hospitals need to control labor costs by decreasing dependence on travel and agency staff, but only 22.7 percent anticipate being able to do so.
  • For every 20 travel RNs eliminated, a hospital can save $4.2 million on average.

In the past 5 years, the average hospital turned over 100.5 percent of its workforce:

  • In 2021, hospitals set a goal of reducing turnover by 4.8 percent. Instead, it increased 6.4 percent and ranged from 5.1 percent to 40.8 percent. The current average hospital turnover rate nationally is 25.9 percent, according to the report.
  • While 72.6 percent of hospitals have a formal nurse retention strategy, less than half of those (44.5 percent) have a measurable goal.
  • Overall, 55.5 percent of hospitals do not have a measurable nurse retention goal.
  • Retirement is the number four reason staff RNs leave, and it is expected to remain a primary driver through 2030. More than half (52.8 percent) of hospitals today have a strategy to retain senior nurses. In 2018, only 21.6 percent had one.

Historically, RN turnover has trended below the hospital average across all staff. For the first time since conducting the survey, this is no longer true: 

  • In the past five years, the average hospital turned over 95.7 percent of its RN workforce.
  • Close to a third (31.0 percent) of all newly hired RNs left within a year, with first year turnover accounting for 27.7 percent of all RN separations. Given the projected surge in retirements, expect to see the more tenured groups edge up creating an inverted bell curve.
  • Operating room RNs continue to be the toughest to recruit, while labor and delivery RNs are trending easier to recruit than in the year prior.
  • Hospitals are experiencing a dramatically higher RN vacancy rate (17 percent) compared to last year’s rate of 9.9 percent.
  • The vast majority (81.3 percent) reported a vacancy rate higher than 10 percent.

Achieving True Health Care Transformation Requires Rethinking Compensation Models and Executive Performance Metrics

https://medcitynews.com/2023/01/

Healthcare leaders now need to strike a delicate balance that requires managing financial and growth metrics, increasing the speed of transformation, and building the health systems of tomorrow. So how do we redefine compensation models to reward all these behaviors?

Executive compensation might not spring to mind as a key driver of healthcare transformation, nor does it seem naturally connected to critical issues such as health equity, patient safety, or quality of care – just a few of the areas where significant changes can be made to transform healthcare. But, in fact, executives leading not-for-profit health systems today are tasked with delivering measurable results that improve the health status of their patients and their communities. And to ensure that these new performance metrics are met, we must change how we think about —and deliver—compensation.

Defining a new model

While executive compensation has always been tied to specific objectives, they have historically leaned heavily toward financial performance, volume and margins, with a modest portion of compensation aligned to quality of care and patient outcomes. But transformative approaches such as population health, value-based care, patient wellness and health outcomes are shifting the mark.

Healthcare leaders now need to strike a delicate balance that requires managing financial and growth metrics, increasing the speed of transformation, and building the health systems of tomorrow. So how do we redefine compensation models to reward all these behaviors?

Some might say that the answer lies in adjusting incentive plans. While incentive plans across health care have not changed significantly in the past decade, the sophistication of the plans has changed, reflecting greater attention to delivering a better patient experience. But delivering better experiences does not imply that health systems have transformed from the top down. In my mind, adjusting incentive plans only solves part of the problem.

If we want true health care transformation—and we should, in order to best serve patients and communities—health systems need to re-evaluate the outcomes for each stakeholder and create incentives to evolve leadership as a whole. We need to rethink executive compensation models to align with value-based care, patient experience, and the resulting outcomes, along with traditional performance measurements.

Leading through lingering disruption 

But rethinking executive compensation models won’t be an easy task, especially given the external challenges and changes thrust upon the health care system over the last few years.

As with nearly every other aspect of health care, pay for performance was disrupted during the pandemic. Demand for health services changed dramatically, labor and attrition issues intensified, and supply chain problems and operational costs increased. These new pressures required executives to manage through long periods of uncertainty where meeting operational pay-for-performance goals was nearly impossible. Fast-forward to today, the executive talent market remains extraordinarily competitive. Demand outpaces supply due to higher-than-typical retirements, effects of the great resignation, the need for new skill sets and overall burnout.

As a result, there has been upward pressure on compensation to address and fulfill unexpected but immediate needs such as rewarding executives for managing in a unique and challenging performance environment, increasing efforts to recruit and retain, and recognizing leaders for their hard-won accomplishments.

Considerations and changes

When considering adjusting models for 2023 and beyond, CEOs and compensation committees need to take these pressures and disruptions into account. They should look closely at their own compensation data from the past two years – not as a lighthouse for future compensation, but as data that may need to be set aside due to the volume of performance goals and achievements that were up-ended by the pandemic. When relying on external industry data, the same rules apply; smaller data sets or those that don’t account for the past two years may be misleading, so review carefully before using limited data sets to inform adjusted models.

Just as important, CEOs and compensation committees should consider new performance measurements tied to both financial and quality or value-based transformation metrics. We don’t need to eliminate traditional financial and operational goals because viability is still a business mandate. But how can we articulate compensation-driven KPIs for stewardship of patient and community health, improved outcomes and reduced cost of care? Too many measures are akin to having no measures at all.

The compensation mix should take into account a more focused approach to long-term measures. The old paradigm of 12-month incentive cycles is not enough to address the time required to truly transform health care. Another consideration should be performance-based funding of deferred compensation based on achieving transformation goals, and greater use of retention programs to support the maintenance of a stable executive team during the transformation period. Covid-19 proved how crisis can be an accelerator for change. True transformation should blend the skills gained from crisis management with planful, thoughtful and intentional change.

In addition, some metrics may need to incorporate a discretionary component, considering ongoing disruption within the workforce, supply chain limitations, and energy, equipment and labor cost increases. More organizations are also including health equity, DE&I, and ESG goals in incentive programs to tighten alignment with mission-critical board-mandated goals.

Transformative change 

There are four elements that are vital in the journey to transform health care from “heads in beds” to the public-service-oriented organizations that they were meant to be—and can be again. With mounting pressure from patients, communities, and payers to boards and employees, CEOs and compensation committees must become key drivers of change, setting the right goals and incentives from the top down.

  • Affordability: can patients afford the care they need?
  • Quality: is the care being delivered of the utmost quality?
  • Usability: how can we reduce hurdles to undertaking the care plan?
  • Access: are all community members able to access needed care?

Solving for each of these elements is one of the biggest challenges we face, and as we begin to emerge from the disruption of the pandemic, leaders will be watched closely to ensure that they deliver—and can clearly show the path to delivery.

Ideally, end achievements would include patients spending less to achieve better health; payers controlling costs and reducing risk; providers realizing efficiencies and greater patient satisfaction; and alignment of medical supplier pricing to patient outcomes. And when you zoom out to reveal the bigger picture, all of these pieces come together to achieve healthier populations and lower overall health care costs, while still meeting the financial goals of the organization.

We’re asking a lot of already-overburdened health care executives. Stakeholders must prove that we value leaders with the right mindset and skillset in order to attract executives who can shepherd organizations through the transformation journey. This requires a setting where there is supportive leadership, a compelling mission and opportunity for personal growth and development. It will not be easy, but without rethinking how we design compensation models from the top down, it will be unnecessarily challenging.

The dire state of hospital finances (Part 1: Hospital of the Future series)

About this Episode

The majority of hospitals are predicted to have negative margins in 2022, marking the worst year financially for hospitals since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Part 1 of Radio Advisory’s Hospital of the Future series, host Rachel (Rae) Woods invites Advisory Board experts Monica WestheadColin Gelbaugh, and Aaron Mauck to discuss why factors like workforce shortages, post-acute financial instability, and growing competition are contributing to this troubling financial landscape and how hospitals are tackling these problems.

Links:

As we emerge from the global pandemic, health care is restructuring. What decisions should you be making, and what do you need to know to make them? Explore the state of the health care industry and its outlook for next year by visiting advisory.com/HealthCare2023.

Inflation Is Squeezing Hospital Margins—What Happens Next?

https://www.healthaffairs.org/content/forefront/inflation-squeezing-hospital-margins-happens-next

Hospitals in the United States are on track for their worst financial year in decades. According to a recent report, median hospital operating margins were cumulatively negative through the first eight months of 2022. For context, in 2020, despite unprecedented losses during the initial months of COVID-19, hospitals still reported median eight-month operating margins of 2 percent—although these were in large part buoyed by federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The recent, historically poor financial performance is the result of significant pressures on multiple fronts. Labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions have fueled a dramatic rise in expenses, which, due to the annually fixed nature of payment rates, hospitals have thus far been unable to pass through to payers. At the same time, diminished patient volumes—especially in more profitable service lines—have constrained revenues, and declining markets have generated substantial investment losses.

While it’s tempting to view these challenges as transient shocks, a rapid recovery seems unlikely for a number of reasons. Thus, hospitals will be forced to take aggressive cost-cutting measures to stabilize balance sheets. For some, this will include department or service line closures; for others, closing altogether. As these scenarios unfold, ultimately, the costs will be borne by patients, in one form or another.

Hospitals Face A Difficult Road To Financial Recovery

There are several factors that suggest hospital margins will face continued headwinds in the coming years. First, the primary driver of rising hospital expenses is a shortage of labor—in particular, nursing labor—which will likely worsen in the future. Since the start of the pandemic, hospitals have lost a total of 105,000 employees, and nursing vacancies have more than doubled. In response, hospitals have relied on expensive contract nurses and extended overtime hours, resulting in surging wage costs. While this issue was exacerbated by the pandemic, the national nursing shortage is a decades-old problem that—with a substantial portion of the labor force approaching retirement and an insufficient supply of new nurses to replace them—is projected to reach 450,000 by 2025.

Second, while payment rates will eventually adjust to rising costs, this is likely to occur slowly and unevenly. Medicare rates, which are adjusted annually based on an inflation projection, are already set to undershoot hospital costs. Given that Medicare doesn’t issue retrospective corrections, this underadjustment will become baked into Medicare prices for the foreseeable future, widening the gap between costs and payments.

This leaves commercial payers to make up the difference. Commercial rates are typically negotiated in three- to five-year contract cycles, so hospitals on the early side of a new contract may be forced to wait until renegotiation for more substantial pricing adjustments. “Negotiation is also the operative term here, as payers are under no obligation to offset rising costs. Instead, it is likely that the speed and degree of price adjustments will be dictated by provider market share, leaving smaller hospitals at a further disadvantage. This trend was exemplified during the 2008 financial crisis, in which only the most prestigious hospitals were able to significantly adjust pricing in response to historic investment losses.

Finally, economic uncertainty and the threat of recession will create continued disruptions in patient volumes, particularly with elective procedures. Although health care has historically been referred to as “recession-proof,” the growing prevalence of high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and more aggressive cost-sharing mechanisms have left patients more exposed to health care costs and more likely to weigh these costs against other household expenditures when budgets get tight. While this consumerist response is not new—research on previous recessions has identified direct correlations between economic strength and surgical volumes—the degree of cost exposure for patients is historically high. Since 2008, enrollment in HDHPs has increased nearly four-fold, now representing 28 percent of all employer-sponsored enrollments. There’s evidence that this exposure is already impacting patient decisions. Recently, one in five adults reported delaying or forgoing treatment in response to general inflation.

Taken together, these factors suggest that the current financial pressures are unlikely to resolve in the short term. As losses mount and cash reserves dwindle, hospitals will ultimately need to cut costs to stem the bleeding—which presents both challenges and opportunities.

Direct And Indirect Consequences For Cost, Quality, And Access To Care

Inevitably, as rising costs become baked into commercial pricing, patients will face dramatic premium hikes. As discussed above, this process is likely to occur slowly over the next few years. In the meantime, the current challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have lasting implications on quality and access to care, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

Likely Effects On Patient Experience And Quality Of Care

Insufficient staffing has already created substantial bottlenecks in outpatient and acute-care facilities, resulting in increased wait times, delayed procedures, and, in extreme cases, hospitals diverting patients altogether. During the Omicron surge, 52 of 62 hospitals in Los Angeles, California, were reportedly diverting patients due to insufficient beds and staffing.

The challenges with nursing labor will have direct consequences for clinical quality. Persistent nursing shortages will force hospitals to increase patient loads and expand overtime hours, measures that have been repeatedly linked to longer hospital stays, more clinical errors, and worse patient outcomes. Additionally, the wave of experienced nurses exiting the workforce will accelerate an already growing divide between average nursing experience and the complexity of care they are asked to provide. This trend, referred to as the “Experience-Complexity Gap,” will only worsen in the coming years as a significant portion of the nursing workforce reaches retirement age. In addition to the clinical quality implications, the exodus of experienced nurses—many of whom serve in crucial nurse educator and mentorship roles—also has feedback effects on the training and supply of new nurses.

Staffing impacts on quality of care are not limited to clinical staff. During the initial months of the pandemic, hospitals laid off or furloughed hundreds of thousands of nonclinical staff, a common target for short-term payroll reductions. While these staff do not directly impact patient care (or billed charges), they can have a significant impact on patient experience and satisfaction. Additionally, downsizing support staff can negatively impact physician productivity and time spent with patients, which can have downstream effects on cost and quality of care.

Disproportionate Impacts On Underserved Communities

Reduced access to care will be felt most acutely in rural regions. recent report found that more than 30 percent of rural hospitals were at risk of closure within the next six years, placing the affected communities—statistically older, sicker, and poorer than average—at higher risk for adverse health outcomes. When rural hospitals close, local residents are forced to travel more than 20 miles further to access inpatient or emergency care. For patients with life-threatening conditions, this increased travel has been linked to a 5–10 percent increase in risk of mortality.

Rural closures also have downstream effects that further deteriorate patient use and access to care. Rural hospitals often employ the majority of local physicians, many of whom leave the community when these facilities close. Access to complex specialty care and diagnostic testing is also diminished, as many of these services are provided by vendors or provider groups within hospital facilities. Thus, when rural hospitals close, the surrounding communities lose access to the entire care continuum. As a result, individuals within these communities are more likely to forgo treatment, testing, or routine preventive services, further exacerbating existing health disparities.

In areas not affected by hospital closures, access will be more selectively impacted. After the 2008 financial crisis, the most common cost-shifting response from hospitals was to reduce unprofitable service offerings. Historically, these measures have disproportionately impacted minority and low-income patients, as they tend to include services with high Medicaid populations (for example, psychiatric and addiction care) and crucial services such as obstetrics and trauma care, which are already underprovided in these communities. Since 2020, dozens of hospitals, both urban and rural, have closed or suspended maternity care. Similar to closure of rural hospitals, these closures have downstream effects on local access to physicians or other health services.

Potential For Productive Cost Reduction And The Need For A Measured Policy Response

Despite the doom-and-gloom scenario presented above, the focus on hospital costs is not entirely negative. Cost-cutting measures will inevitably yield efficiencies in a notoriously inefficient industry. Additionally, not all facility closures negatively impact care. While rural facility closures can have dire consequences in health emergencies, studies have found that outcomes for non-urgent conditions remained similar or actually improved.

Historically, attempts to rein in health care spending have focused on the demand side (that is, use) or on negotiated prices. These measures ignore the impact of hospital costs, which have historically outpaced inflation and contributed directly to rising prices. Thus, the current situation presents a brief window of opportunity in which hospital incentives are aligned with the broader policy goals of lowering costs. Capitalizing on this opportunity will require a careful balancing act from policy makers.

In response to the current challenges, the American Hospital Association has already appealed to Congress to extend federal aid programs created in the CARES Act. While this would help to mitigate losses in the short term, it would also undermine any positive gains in cost efficiency. Instead of a broad-spectrum bailout, policy makers should consider a more targeted approach that supports crucial community and rural services without continuing to fund broader health system inefficiencies.

The establishment of Rural Emergency Hospitals beginning in 2023 represents one such approach to eliminating excess costs while preventing negative patient consequences. This rule provides financial incentives for struggling critical access and rural hospitals to convert to standalone emergency departments instead of outright closing. If effective, this policy would ensure that affected communities maintain crucial access to emergency care while reducing overall costs attributed to low-volume, financially unviable services.

Policies can also help promote efficiencies by improving coverage for digital and telehealth services—long touted as potential solutions to rural health care deserts—or easing regulations to encourage more effective use of mid-level providers.

Conclusion

The financial challenges facing hospitals are substantial and likely to persist in the coming years. As a result, health systems will be forced to take drastic measures to reduce costs and stabilize profit margins. The existing challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have long-term implications for cost, quality, and access to care, especially within historically underserved communities. As with any crisis, though, they also present an opportunity to address industrywide inefficiencies. By relying on targeted, evidence-based policies, policy makers can mitigate the negative consequences and allow for a more efficient and effective system to emerge.

The Alarming Way Doctors Approach Caring for the Disabled

https://mailchi.mp/cd392de550e2/the-weekly-gist-october-21-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

 In a concerning New York Times article, reporter Gina Kolata relates the findings of a recent Health Affairs study that convened focus groups of physicians to anonymously discuss the ways they provide—or too often, don’t provide—care to disabled patients. Many admitted to avoiding seeing patients in wheelchairs and complained about having to provide accommodations to speech-impaired patients, citing the high costs of adapting their clinic operations while dealing with disruptions to workflow. People with disabilities interviewed for the article, including Harvard professor of medicine Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, who ran the study, found its results confirmed impressions of widespread bias against the disabled, which is pervasive across healthcare. 

The Gist: Reducing disparities in access and quality of care for disabled people often receives less attention than reducing economic, racial, and gender disparities. What’s revealing about this piece is how these disparities among disabled patients manifest, ranging from personal biases (physicians not wanting or knowing how to care for certain groups of disabled people) to structural challenges (constraints of time, money, and facilities needed for proper care). However, for disabled patients, these factors result in an often substandard and unacceptable healthcare experience, which must be addressed head-on by physician and health system leaders.