‘Focus on our culture and our people’ | American Hospital Association Leadership Summit

Amid daunting challenges, three health system leaders stress the importance of taking care of their teams and making everyone feel valued.

San Diego - It’s difficult to plan for the future with healthcare systems still dealing with a crisis.

In a session at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit, three health system leaders tackled the question of planning for the future. While they represent different markets and face different challenges, much of the discussion focused on the workplace culture and ensuring that staff feel valued.

Kerry Heinrich, CEO of Adventist Health, said his organization, like others, has faced “the confluence of events we’ve never seen before.”

Even with COVID-19 hospitalization well below the peak in the winter, cases and hospital admissions are rising. At the same time, the workforce is down 20%.

The goal “is to keep focused on the future while dealing with a very, very changing business model in the present,” Heinrich said.

Part of planning for the future means showing appreciation for the workers in the system.

Heinrich said he recently sat with Adventist’s residents and gave them a clear message.

“You matter,” he said he told them. “We are thrilled to have you with our organization.”

“Leadership is about inculcating those values … and making your workforce feel valued,” he said.

‘Part of the caregiving team’

Cliff Megerian, CEO of the University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland, said his system is constantly investing in wages as much as possible to retain workers.

He also said the system’s leaders are focused on creating a culture that values employees, including investments in tuition reimbursement programs and wellness programs.

“Focus on our culture and our people is what’s going to help us get through this,” he said.

Megerian said the system is “creating a common mission among our caregivers that the noble work we do, caring for our community … that they are the sharp end of the spear to correct a social problem.”

The system’s leadership has a goal of having all employees - whether they are physicians, patient transporters, or valets - understand that they have the same mission. He said leadership is stressing that everyone should see their job “is to make sure the patient recovers and leaves the hospital safe from infection.”

“They are not ancillary personnel,” Megerian said. “They are part of the caregiving team.”

When everyone sees themselves as part of the caregiving team, the patients feel more comforted. Megerian recalled his own experience as a patient and being transported to a hospital room, and an employee assured him that he would be fine, because of the great people in the hospital. "That meant something,” he said.

‘The greatest place to work’

Mark Sevco, president of UPMC Hospitals, said the culture of the organization is vital.

“How do we create that culture to be the greatest place to work?” he asked.

UPMC has several key goals, including moving toward the digital platform and addressing health disparities, innovation in developing new models of care and leveraging predictive analytics differently in the past.

But the most important goal is probably focusing on the people, in recruiting, training and retaining workers, Sevco said.

UPMC has offered bonuses for staff members picking up extra shifts.

UPMC, and most health systems, have faced a shortage of nurses. In response, UPMC launched a model program late last year to start its own in-house travel staffing agency to help retain nurses. With the program, UPMC nurses can travel to other hospitals within the system and can earn higher pay.

“We will pay a travel rate, but we don’t have to pay an external agency,” Sevco said.

While addressing compensation is obviously a key issue, Sevco also said it’s important for leaders to repeatedly remind staff members that they care about them.

‘There has to be recognition’

Employees who are excelling need to be recognized, the leaders said.

Recognition can help retain employees. Unit directors with the most interaction with their workers, perhaps not surprisingly, have the least turnover, Sevco said.

“That’s a lot of pats on the back,” Sevco said.

Megerian talked about the need to recognize different staff for various roles. The University Hospitals system had a distinguished physician award for a long time, and has instituted a similar honor for nurses. There’s also a hero of the week, honor.

While acknowledging the importance of competitive pay, Megerian said, “That won’t work alone."

“There has to be recognition,” he said. “Recognition is so important.”