Michael Charlton says he’s looking to improve access and the patient experience. He also wants to play a part in the revival of Atlantic City.
Michael Charlton, the president and CEO of AtlantiCare Health System, is glad to have dropped the “interim” title.
He had been serving as the New Jersey health system’s interim leader since June, before AtlantiCare’s board selected him as CEO earlier this month.
“It's a blessing,” Charlton says. “So it's very gratifying knowing that I get to come home and I get to be a part of this great organization. And there's some relief. Carrying that ‘interim’ title, when you care about an organization as much as I do, I think I underestimated the stress that ‘interim’ title would have. So it's a little bit of a relief and a lot of excitement.”
Charlton has served on AtlantiCare’s board, as well as a member of the American Hospital Association’s board of trustees. But he also brings three decades of experience in the hospitality industry. He founded Icon Hospitality in southern New Jersey, a company that began with a small pizzeria he opened at age 23.
In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Charlton says he’s anxious to lead the health system, even in a challenging environment for hospitals. He’s also looking to have an impact on the health system’s five-county area in South Jersey, including Atlantic City.
“I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity to create some significant change, not just in the health system, but in the community,” he says.
“I was born and raised here,” Charlton says. “I grew up here. My mother was an LPN here at one point. We have a great organization that, like most cities in this country right now, we have some struggles. And I think AtlantiCare being the anchor institution, is critically important to moving not just the health system forward, but this community. So that's really what's exciting right now.”
AtlantiCare’s two hospitals include a total of about 600 beds, and the health system operates more than 100 sites of care across southern New Jersey.
Like many hospital systems nationwide, AtlantiCare is facing some formidable headwinds. Charlton says he sees more potential for revenue growth from those clinics and other healthcare sites outside of the hospitals. He also sees potential to reach more patients with telehealth services.
But with an aging population, he still sees plenty of potential with inpatient care.
“I'm not one who's buying into the data right now that a lot of these services are moving out of the inpatient side of the business,” Charlton says.
The South Jersey market offers plenty of competition, with Cooper University Health Care, which reached an agreement to merge with Cape Regional Health System; Virtua Health; and Jefferson Health in the market as well.
“We wholeheartedly believe that all care is local,” Charlton says. “And we made that commitment to our community over the past 125 years. So you know, I think from a vision standpoint, that's really the foundational element.”
Charlton also stresses the importance of the patient experience and improving access to healthcare, as well. “At the end of the day, you know, we have access challenges and healthcare all across this country,” he says.
At a time when more hospital mergers are happening, Charlton stresses that AtlantiCare intends to remain independent.
AtlantiCare had merged with Geisinger in 2015, but the two systems ended the partnership in 2020.
“Not many health systems merge and then decouple that merger,” Charlton says.
“Unfortunately, the two organizations couldn't get that strategy alignment right,” he says. “So, I think the board and the C-suite is clear on maintaining its independence.”
However, Charlton says the system would consider other partnerships that could serve patients.
“Although we won't merge, and we will stay independent, we will look to affiliations or partnerships down the line,” he says. “Whatever it takes to deliver great care to our community, we're obviously open to.”
Reviving the city
While Atlantic City draws millions of visitors to its casinos, boardwalk and beaches, the city continues to struggle. The median household income in the city is under $30,000, and 37% of its residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many of the city’s residents lack quality housing and food insecurity is a serious problem, Charlton says. The city doesn’t have a supermarket in its borders, so residents without a car rely on convenience stores.
“When you talk about Atlantic City, … you have a predominantly Black and brown community that is highly underserved,” Charlton says. “Even with the 45 years of casino gaming, we necessarily haven't solved some of those social determinant challenges, whether it's food insecurity, housing, behavioral health issues.”
AtlantiCare operates federally qualified health centers in the city. Beyond that, Charlton talks about working with other local leaders to play a part in reviving the city.
“I think AtlantiCare has to be part of that,” he says. “We are an anchor institution.”
The system’s service area includes some growing suburbs, some rural communities, and a rising population of seniors with more housing developments aimed at retirees. The emergence of senior-only communities offers some opportunities for the system, as well as challenges, since they require more resources, Charlton says.
Charlton says he wants to remove some of the workload from clinicians to allow them to spend more time with patients.
“I would challenge the sense that we have a workforce problem solely,” he says. “I think we have a work problem. And I think we've layered on so much work to our caregivers and our clinical personnel, and our administrators or managers or supervisors, that it's just become daunting. And I think, when you talk about work-life harmony, I don't think there's any balance anymore.”
As a result, health systems have trouble retaining staff, and others see the heavy workload and are less inclined to enter the profession, he says.
Charlton is optimistic AtlantiCare can make progress in that area. He says the system is looking at creating a “command center” to take some tasks away from clinical personnel, including some administrative duties and discharge instructions.
“Once you do that, when you focus people on what the core purpose is, it's not just better job satisfaction, but it's also better work-life balance,” Charlton says.
Pointing to his prior business experience, Charlton says he’s aiming to look at AtlantiCare from the customer’s perspective. He says he’s aiming to create the most value and provide more convenience.
He says he wants to see the system focused on the patient experience, from reducing paperwork to reducing the amount of time a patient suspected of having breast cancer can get a biopsy.
“We’ve got to be patient-centric,” he says. “You can't wait six months to get into a specialty or subspecialty. You can't wait three or four months to get into primary care. You can't wait weeks to get lab results. These things have to start getting quicker and more advanced. And you know, that's what we're focused on.”