Tom Strauss leads a new vision for patient care at Summa Health System Featured

8:22pm EDT April 30, 2012
Tom Strauss leads a new vision for patient care at Summa Health System

The fact that Tom Strauss sees some major flaws with the national health care system shouldn’t just raise eyebrows for hospitals or the patients in them. As CEO of one of the largest integrated healthcare delivery systems in Ohio — employing 10,000 people and more than 1,000 physicians across seven hospitals — Strauss knows the problem is one that affects every person in the country.

“I think everybody would admit that what we have in health care in this country today is unsustainable,” says Strauss, the president and CEO of Akron, Ohio-based Summa Health System. “When you’re spending $2.5 trillion, 17.6 percent of the GDP on health care and the health premium now for a family has exceeded what a minimum wage worker makes in a year — think of that … it’s going to affect the way that we do business.”

The glaring problems with the current care model have been compounded by the increasing number of people without health insurance, which creates a shrinking base of patients from which hospitals can generate any income — the sick ones.

“We’re really a sick care system, which means when we get paid traditionally in hospitals, it’s only by treating a bunch of sick patients,” Strauss says. “So if a good flu season rolls in … our beds are full and we’re billing a lot of revenue, but we have a lot of sick patients. There’s something wrong with that picture.”

With mounting costs, anticipated reimbursement declines and payment model that rewards based on sickness rather than health, Strauss and his team finally said enough is enough. After spending two years devising a new vision for the organization to evolve and improve the system, Summa Health launched a pilot program for an accountable care organization, called NewHealth Collaborative. In January 2011 it moved 11,000 patients in its SummaCare Medicare plan to the new collaborative.

“Some of these places are holding onto the revenue as long as they can because they believe there is a way to survive that,” Strauss says. “We don’t think there is.

“So with us, it’s what do you do to transform yourself to focus differently to create true value in health care.”

Here’s how Strauss has led the implementation of the accountable care vision across the seven hospitals.

Get organized

Because Summa Health is one of the first organizations in the community to create a prototype for accountable care organizations, Strauss knows it will be an example for future organizations in the way it implements its vision and strategy. To make sure the shift toward population health management is successful, one of the first steps is putting in place the right tools, processes and infrastructure to support it.

“You’ve got to know where your vision is, where you’re going and what your objectives with the strategy are and then put in place the executing tactical plans to make that happen,” Strauss says.

Strauss says that a key problem with the old system of that care was it could be very fragmented. With different physicians in charge of different services, handing off tasks and having limited knowledge of a patient’s needs, an estimated 30 percent of what is conducted in health care and in hospitals today is unnecessary.

So part of the transformation has been changing the organization’s siloed infrastructure to create multi-disciplinary approach to services, eliminating the overtreatment of patients and saving costs by keeping everyone on the same page, including the patient.

“People like me have to start to prepare ourselves structurally to be able to do these things for population health and population management,” Strauss says.

“What’s nice is it’s easier to do the right care, the appropriate care, and eliminate this 30 percent that’s unnecessary than to not do it. So we’ve made it easier for physicians to do that.”

Frequently inefficiency is the result of lack of communication and knowledge-sharing. So a critical step to becoming more organized and efficient is looking for ways to improve your technology.

“Some organizations are used to living on very high revenues,” Strauss says. “When you realize that eventually that is going to go away, you have to reposition your organization to be able to function at lower rates of reimbursement.”

Strauss says that the organization is investing $80 million in IT over the span of five years. It has already added a new call center so physician’s phones roll over to the 24/7 call center with care nurses during off hours. The system’s Akron City and St. Thomas hospitals also became some of the first in the country to have computerized physician order entry so physicians can access and manage orders through a portal at any time.

The other piece was implementing new evidence-based medicine protocols and procedures in the care delivery process to integrate the 10 service lines for increased efficiency.

By structuring your organization for more effective collaboration, you can align the people on shared goals and your new vision.  At the same time, you give people a clearer idea of how their role contributes to the big picture of your mission and vision.

“Those are the kinds of structures that you have to have in place to be able to thrive under this new health care reform move towards population health and population management,” Strauss says. “So it’s more than just technology.”

Be an open book

Once they came up with the model, Strauss and his leadership team presented it to the physicians and the board and held retreats to walk employees through the vision, its benefits and how the transformation would occur.

“I think most physicians understand that the old way of doing things is not very effective,” he says. “The days of fee-for service — the reimbursement is just going to be cut and cut and cut. It will be death by a thousand cuts. They understand they can’t survive the way that it is today, so we have to do something differently.”

With most people on board, the real challenge was making sure the 400 physicians and other employees involved could understand, execute and share the vision. Developing strong partnerships among the hospitals and other care providers requires strong alignment on goals as well as new patient care protocols and procedures. So for Strauss, the key to success has been having the organization be as open as possible with employees about the vision, what it involves and any changes being asked of them.

“It’s creating a vision for the future and getting people to understand what that vision is and then educating the components to engage in that process when it might be different than what they were used to in the past,” Strauss says.

“If you don’t, and they don’t believe in where you are going you will be unsuccessful. So for us, we really took the time and even after it was implemented went back to reinforce the vision of why this is so important.”

By explaining how a new vision complements your organization’s core values, mission and culture, you can get more buy-in by aligning people behind shared goals as well as a shared culture. So aside from instituting training and education programs for employees, Strauss has spent a lot of personal time working to put the vision into a clear framework. His efforts include teaching a class for employees called “The Philosophies of Summa,” speaking at monthly new employee orientations and hosting monthly “Talks with Tom” for several hundred employees with representatives from each department.

“There are no secrets,” Strauss says. “I give them financials. I talk about what’s happening good and bad and ugly, and it’s been very effective. It’s information. It’s listening. It’s being by their side and nurturing them when they are down.

“We believe that the employees that work here are the soul of the firm. Your employees represent your greatest strength or your greatest weakness. So they have a culture that supports them — servant leadership — and it says if I’m not serving that patient I’m going to serve you.”

Strauss says that another goal of the open communication is to reciprocate the attitude and culture he wants to drive in the system, which is one of servant leadership and mutual caring.

“The moment of truth is the first 15 seconds when you come in contact with a patient in need, and it’s how you seize that moment to make the difference to satisfy their needs,” he says.

“If you’re too busy or you’re having a bad day or the Browns lost or the Steelers lost, and you translate that at work to your patient, we will fail as an organization.”

To strengthen the mindset they want all employees to have, Strauss has charged managers to be more active in talking to employees and patients to see what their needs are and helping them carry out the vision for accountable care.

“If you’re engaging your work force to go after a vision, then you need to give them as much information as you can about the reason for that vision,” he says. “That’s one of the pieces that I love to do.

“We’re actually making a concerted effort to do rounding with a purpose. You’re going to see every leader at Summa being out more on the floor talking to patients, talking to employees both on satisfaction and safety.”

Motivate results

But once you give people the information, you then want them to drive its success as much as possible. To help employees feel like they have a stake in that vision so they will drive it with enthusiasm, Summa Health has tied more employee financial incentives to the positive patient outcomes it’s seeking from the new care protocols and procedures.

For example, all employees in the system receive a bonus each year based on the company’s financial performance and levels of patient satisfaction.

“We’ve paid out millions of dollars to the employees,” Strauss says. “This is beyond managers. This is all of the employees. We want them to feel like if they produce, if they work with us, if they exceed the expectations of the patients — that’s the definition of quality — they will benefit, their organization will benefit, and we will be the provider and employer of choice.”

Eventually, seeing the positive results of changes helps employees realize that your vision is a viable one.

As a result of its technological innovation, the NewHealth Collaborative received 2012 certification from the federal government for its ability to meet standards of meaningful use guidelines. Its Akron City and St. Thomas Hospitals will acquire $5.1 million in federal incentives, which will be distributed to the hospitals and its doctors.

“In the old days you would just throw services out there and market those services and try to grow this population of sick patients,” Strauss says. “Now we’re going to get paid on the population’s health.”

Although he’s been with Summa Health for 13 years, Strauss believes that the organization is just starting to scratch the service in the excellence it can achieve by transforming the community’s health. Despite the uncertain future of health care reform, he sees more and more people are now realizing that action needs to be taken to change the industry.

“When you deliver that kind of quality and safety and you see the savings we’re starting to generate, you realize that there’s an answer here,” Strauss says.

How to reach: Summa Health System, (800) 237-8662 or www.summahealth.org

Takeaways

1. Put the structures in place to implement your plan.

2. Help infuse the vision with transparency and an open-door policy.

3. Offer employee incentives to drive results.

The Strauss File

Thomas Strauss

President and CEO

Summa Health System

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: Duquesne University for undergraduate and graduate schools. B.S. in pharmacy in 1975 and a doctorate of pharmacy in 1978

What do you like most about working in health care?

That you are caring for patients at their most vulnerable time, you can make a difference in every patient’s life and you can make a difference in employees’ lives. We’re the largest employer in five counties, so for us we take that pretty seriously. And improve the health status of the communities, not only once you educate and take care of patients but you can go out into the communities and you can make a difference.

What mistakes can you make in a growing business?

The first thing you’ve got to realize is that you can’t make everybody happy. That’s the hard one, especially for somebody like me who really prefers to have people holding hands singing ‘Kumbaya.’ The other area is trying to micromanage. You cannot in this environment micromanage. You’ve got to empower your people and let them go. They will make mistakes and that’s OK as long as they learn from their mistakes. I would think trying to stay in the old system, trying to stay in the old ways was a mistake that got us starting to transform toward population health and population management.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

Love what you do. If you think about the hours we all work, that gets pretty challenging if you don’t love what you do because I probably put in as many hours here as I do at home, unfortunately. So that’s one. Make sure you love what you do, and if you don’t love what you do, go find something you will.