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Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas focuses on health equity

Article

The system is undertaking a $100 million effort to improve health in Louisiana, which trails nearly all other states. In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Thomas says the initiative is moving forward.

Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, recalls the challenge vividly.

A few years ago, the Louisiana-based health system’s board of directors asked executives what they wanted to do to make a difference. Louisiana lags behind the nation in key indicators of public health.

“At the end of 2019, our board challenged our management to say, ‘OK, if we’re really going to have an impact over the next decade, what could we do?’” Thomas says. “Whether we like it or not, if you look at Louisiana, for the past several decades, we’ve been either 49th or 50th in health outcomes nationally.”

Ochsner set out to launch a $100 million effort to improve health outcomes in Louisiana. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

“When we set this goal back in early 2020, we didn’t know we were headed in a global pandemic, so we got delayed a little bit,” Thomas says. “We’re now back at it.”

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Thomas outlined the system’s work with other groups to help improve Louisiana’s public health. He says the recently completed merger with Rush Health Systems, now known as Ochsner Rush Health, will focus on eliminating health disparities. (See part of our interview in this video. The story continues below the video.)

‘Bringing folks together’

Ochsner Health is leading the initiative, dubbed “Healthy State by 2030.”

Ochsner operates 40 hospitals and more than 300 healthcare and urgent care centers across the Gulf South. Even so, Thomas says, the system recognizes it needs partners.

“We’ve got people from government, people from business and industry, education, federally qualified health center, other hospital systems, insurers, all coming together with this goal of, how do we improve the health of the state,” Thomas says.

Ochsner Health has committed to building 15 community health centers in underserved parts of Louisiana over the next decade. The system is also investing in the Ochsner Scholars Program, which will cover medical school costs for those willing to go into primary care and psychiatry and will commit to serving in Louisiana and Mississippi for a certain period of time.

“They get a full ride to medical school,” Thomas says.

Ochsner Health and its partners are setting goals in certain areas, such as reducing smoking rates, which Thomas cites as a key factor in the state’s poor health standings, and cancer screenings.

The goals also include metrics outside the typical health arena, such as improvements in high school education and a broader workforce development strategy. High poverty rates also play a huge role in the state's poor health rankings, Thomas says.

“These all converge,” Thomas says. “Graduation rate, education, income level all go together as part of the health equation and improving health status.”

And there's a long way to go. Louisiana ranked 49th in the nation in child well-being in the 2022 Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT Data Book, which was published earlier this month. The report examined health, education, and economic well-being.

The Healthy State effort involves working with schools to help identify students who can get into workforce programs, where they can go to school and earn money at the same time, and possibly gain an interest in a healthcare career.

“We’re the catalyst,” Thomas says. “We can’t do it alone. We’re the catalyst in bringing folks together. I think we can be successful if we continue to stay focused and work hard on this over the next decade.”

Equity through disease management

As part of consolidating what is now Ochsner Rush Health, Thomas says the merger will involve more digital health opportunities in Rush’s seven hospitals and care sites.

“We have pretty advanced capabilities in remote patient management in hypertension and diabetes that we’ll be bringing to that market, building more connectivity to the home. There are tools we’ve used at Ochsner,” Thomas says.

Ochsner is helping 20,000 patients manage chronic diseases, including hypertension, with remote patient management tools.

Thomas says those tools can help keep people out of the hospital and improve health equity in underserved areas.

Thomas cited a study of chronic disease management tools involving 3,000 Medicaid patients in northern Louisiana. The tools were used to help patients manage hypertension and diabetes. “The results have been extremely impressive in reduction in E.R. visits, reduction in hospitalization, improvement in overall Medicaid costs,” Thomas says.

Ochsner is working with Medicaid plans in Louisiana to cover those services.

“We do think this is a way that we can take care of more people, closer to home,” Thomas says.

“These are services you use while you’re sitting in your home. You do not have to go to a health center, you don’t have to go to a hospital. Folks are seeing significant improvement in control of their blood pressure and diabetes.”

Those remote patient management tools offer the chance to close some gaps in disparities, Thomas says.

“I absolutely think these tools will be game changers, not just in our area, really in healthcare in general,” he says.


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