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How CEOs can ensure their health systems survive and thrive in the current climate | Viewpoint


Health systems must focus on improving daily business operations while finding new opportunities for growth.

With the decline of pandemic-related relief funding, U.S. healthcare systems are grappling with financial challenges associated with increased costs across labor, technology, and the supply chain.

Betsy Stanley is co-founder and senior director of Pinkston Strategy, the business consultancy firm. (Photo provided by Pinkston)

Betsy Stanley is co-founder and senior director of Pinkston Strategy, the business consultancy firm. (Photo provided by Pinkston)

Now, insurance reimbursement growth, by the design of contract negotiations, will lag behind cost increases, leading to even lower operating margins across healthcare. Additionally, in the projected recessionary environment, more Americans will lack coverage. Paired with high out-of-pocket costs, patients are at high risk of avoiding preventative or maintenance care, lowering patient volumes and emphasizing the financial challenges that health systems face.

Despite these difficulties, health systems have largely survived the pandemic and sluggish economy but may have yet to thrive in these environments.

To adequately address these challenges, health systems must drive an integrated two-part strategy that focuses on improving daily business operations while finding new opportunities for growth in order to survive and thrive.

To survive entails aligning the whole business to operationally critical priorities- the first component of our two-part strategy. These strategic priorities, while unique to each organization, are largely based on four similar themes.

1. Optimize existing operations and key processes to create efficiency.

Improve critical operational performance by emphasizing forecasting performance and engaging with leaders who can drive actions. For example: maintain clarity on operating room and ambulatory block forecasting while partnering with clinicians and scheduling teams to proactively drop unused block times, allowing higher-demand surgeons and specialties to reduce their wait lists.

Elevate and invigorate prior process improvement (PI) efforts. PI is a cornerstone of hospital operations performance management. This period is a time to double down on prior efforts while evaluating and improving high-impact business areas to streamline.

A pitfall of all well-intentioned PI efforts to avoid is overcomplicating and doing too much at once, such that employees and clinicians are overwhelmed by the “friendly reminder” emails. Instead, getting back to basics by identifying “high value, lowest effort” improvements championed by frontline team members can better reinforce the original intent of core operational improvements.

2. Focus on engaging employees and clinicians to drive retention and satisfaction.

Lean in with high performers and focus on what drives motivation and satisfaction. One-on-one meetings with frontline staff are essential but often overlooked or need more intention. Find ways to make them mutually productive, even if it means taking a walk or having a coffee chat.

The content of these meetings should focus on satisfaction and motivation drivers, as well as aspirational career discussions. Each session should drive actionable next steps, and you should follow through with closed-loop communication. Pay attention to small details and act accordingly.

When making decisions that affect employees and clinicians, incorporate the voice of the frontline and consider how they may affect burnout. Recent surveys show that we're making progress in engaging and mitigating burnout with clinicians, but this progress could be undone if we're not careful.

3. Be brutally honest about what technology adds value to your organization.

Perform a complete audit of your organization’s technology to evaluate what needs to be better leveraged and what might need to be dropped. Increasingly, technology is used throughout the healthcare journey from bedside to billing statements.

At the same time, pricey tech can malfunction through equipment or human error, creating a bigger headache for clinicians and employees and undermining the intended value.

Effective healthcare systems are leveraging nurse informaticists more broadly to implement supportive solutions and to increase meaningful time at the bedside and remove the clinician as the default troubleshooter for malfunctioning tech at the bedside.

4. Build strength and brand in your organization's core services by emphasizing competency and reputation of those delivering the care.

Leverage the power of external communications to engage with your audiences and build strong relationships effectively.

By implementing a comprehensive PR and marketing strategy, health organizations can efficiently communicate with their target audience and create a credible image. This includes utilizing a variety of channels such as social media, email marketing, content marketing, events, and media outreach.

Moreover, it is essential to establish clear messaging and branding guidelines to ensure consistent communication across all channels. This can help build a strong brand reputation, increase brand recognition and establish customer trust.

Organizations can best showcase their reputation by partnering with the clinicians delivering the care to land their messages best and expand their reach and credibility.

The second part of the organization’s strategy shifts focus to the longer-term success of the organization.

To thrive entails finding and driving new growth. Businesses must prioritize development, emphasizing new growth if they want to progress beyond mere survival. But the work should be done with critical operational priorities, not after the fact.

In order to drive this growth, healthcare systems should:

Understand your target patients and the markets that best align with your services.

Begin by assessing the needs of your general service area and the patients within it.

Consider their health priorities and how they prefer to engage with healthcare. For example, is your area an emerging suburb with young couples seeking labor and delivery and pediatric services? Do skilled nursing and an aging population surround you?

Revisit your offerings to best meet the needs of your target patients.

For example, if you have a high concentration of seniors in your area, are they aging in place at home where transportation may be a more significant challenge or housed in assistive communities?

Evaluate your competition to design the best possible offerings for your patients.

Consider questions such as, “Why should newly expecting parents choose to receive prenatal care and delivery at your facility over another?” Based on your answers, evolve your offerings to attract your target patient populations. Design your go-to-market efforts and offerings based on your ability to easily implement high-value changes.

Invest in your aspirations. Understand the investment required to build truly differentiated offerings for your target patients. Build short and long-term financial plans that allow you to achieve your aspirations within a realistic, yet ambitious, timeframe.

Finally, to unify the two-part strategy, build a single comprehensive roadmap to realize your vision and align the whole business behind the vision for growth and operational excellence.

Create a sequenced set of initiatives to evolve and expand your offerings, cascade the vision through the organization, align champions to each initiative, and activate through your strategic priority governance.

It’s easy to pursue either stability in the core operations of the business to survive or bet on new growth to thrive. Likewise, as the U.S. continues to buckle down in a recessionary environment, strategic investments will be met with caution.

However, healthcare organizations must acknowledge that, if both strategies are not mobilized, they will create a self-limiting future and risk being unseated from the leading edge of healthcare delivery.

By Betsy Stanley, co-founder and senior director of Pinkston Strategy, a business consultancy firm

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