How Mike Duggan pointed everyone in a new direction at the Detroit Medical Center

Mike Duggan

Mike Duggan, president and CEO, Detroit Medical Center

Mike Duggan always found it offensive that hospitals profit more when a patient’s health problems are more severe.

“It’s really true: Hospitals make more money the sicker you are,” says the president and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center. “If we recycle the same sick people through hospitals over and over, the doctors and hospitals make more money from that. The fact is, the worse off patients are, the better the doctors and hospitals are, which never made any sense to me.”

Last May, Duggan and his leadership team at DMC decided to do something about it by applying to become one of 32 medical systems nationwide that will participate in the Medicare-operated Pioneer Accountable Care Organization Model program. DMC was officially named a program participant in December. As part of the program, DMC will receive money from the federal government based on its preventative-care track record moving forward.

“It started off as a moral question, and most of the DMC physicians agreed with it,” Duggan says. “Doctors went into this business to keep people well, and the idea that you succeeded more if you keep patients well appealed to a lot of doctors, it appealed to us, but you are going to find that most hospitals in the country didn’t apply for the Pioneer ACO, and really are resisting that direction.”

One possible reason for resistance is the fundamental changes required at the operational level. The ACO model requires a high level of coordination between doctors and hospitals to ensure that patients receive adequate preventative care and are maintaining follow-up doctor appointments after a hospital discharge. For doctors used to running their own practices, Duggan says they can experience some culture shock when placed in an environment where they and hospital administrators have to hold each other mutually accountable for a patient’s care.

That is the challenge that Duggan has faced, and will continue to face throughout the year. With 14,000 direct employees, and more than 1,000 physicians positioned as 50 percent stakeholders through DMC’s physician hospital organization, Duggan has to keep 15,000 people focused on a new approach to health care by emphasizing the reasons for change, and keeping everyone plugged into the organization’s progress.

Give them the paintbrush

When outlining any rationale for change, you have to spell out the reasons behind the change if you want to get buy-in throughout your organization. In DMC’s case, however, Duggan tried to put the change in the hands of his doctors and employees as much as possible. He outlined the resources at DMC’s disposal, the business model, and how the resources and model, if properly implemented and utilized, would make the ACO model a success. From there, he wanted the 1,000 stakeholder doctors to put two and two together, and come to the conclusion that this was the right way for DMC to operate.

Duggan wanted the stakeholder physicians to see that DMC had a highly integrated electronic medical records platform, a doctor-driven operational structure and a constructive relationship between doctors and administrative staff.

“We were the first system in Michigan to become 100 percent electronic, and that system is now being rolled out to the doctors’ offices,” Duggan says. “That means we’ll have someone in a central control capacity that will be able to see that Mrs. Jones was discharged on Dec. 7, she has a follow-up appointment with her doctor on Dec. 11, and then we can see if she showed up to her appointment. If she didn’t, we’ll be on the phone asking if she needs a ride or needs a nurse to come to her house.”

The real-time electronic updates have fostered a positive working relationship that is essential when implementing a system that requires coordinated movement from many different parts within an organization. Ultimately, no matter how you accomplish it, in order to develop the strong working relationships that can help smooth a large transition, the right hand has to know what left is doing. If there is a sense of disconnect, communication has broken down and problems can arise in your plan’s implementation.

“The great thing about this is I have been providing administrative support, but this has been a doctor-driven process,” Duggan says. “The doctors are driving the medical side, and we have been working together seamlessly. If you talk to doctors at a lot of other hospitals, there is a contentious relationship with them and the hospitals. When you have people that want to be a part of a big change like this, you have to keep them close and connected. I think we’ve been effective in doing that.”

Another factor working in favor of Duggan’s plan is the fact that doctors have, in a very real sense, bought into DMC’s future. In December 2010, the health system became a physician hospital organization. The 1,000 doctors that paid $1,000 to join the organization represent nearly half of DMC’s 2,500 affiliated physicians. By literally buying in to DMC’s future, the doctors who joined the PHO have become advocates to their peers for the switchover to an ACO-based operating model.

With that level of engagement, Duggan has had a great deal of help in aligning the organization.

“I don’t spend a lot of time with skeptics,” he says. “I just say, ‘Here is the reason why I think it makes sense to sign up; if you don’t want to sign up this year, you could sign up a year from now after you see how it all works. It’s your own choice.’ But so many doctors have gone and persuaded their colleagues that this is the right thing to do. And it’s because we’ve taken that approach. The key is to be totally honest and direct, and don’t twist anybody’s arm. If you believe this is the direction to go, it’s going to be a lot of fun. If you don’t believe in this direction, nobody is going to criticize you, and you can reevaluate a year from now.”

Build on the momentum

When you’re trying to build support for a large-scale organizational change, it’s nice to have people take up the cause and advocate to their peers, even if you don’t ask for the help. But as the leader, you often can’t just wait for that support to sprout on its own. You have to cultivate it. And the way you cultivate it is by searching for the dreamers and the complainers in your company.

The dreamers are the people who still have a sense of idealism about their work. They still want to change the company, the industry and the world for the better. The complainers might seem like a destructive force on the surface, calling your decisions into question, but Duggan sees something else.

“The person who is always calling you, complaining that you aren’t doing enough, that is normally where I start looking for my change agents,” he says. “The person who doesn’t care enough to call up with a company probably isn’t your guy. But I’ve always relied heavily on the people who care enough to call up. I engage those people, because while some complainers are just complainers, a lot of complainers are problem solvers who just want a shot to make things better. Your most vocal critics are often your best change agents when you’re trying to promote a change like this.”

Duggan points to one of the other administrators at DMC, who has been a highly antagonistic critic ever since Duggan was hired as CEO. Duggan has repeatedly sought his critical colleague out for service on panels, knowing that he’ll bring a different perspective to the table. When you’re trying to facilitate a major change, it might seem counterintuitive to give a voice to your harshest critics. But bringing them to the discussion can accomplish two things — it can bring a fresh outlook to the proceedings, and it can win over not just the critical person alone, but also like-minded skeptics who see you accepting a differing viewpoint.

Duggan got his dreamers on board during a trip to a seminar in Minnesota last June.

“We had a couple of private doctors who have had a drive their entire life to change the way medicine is practiced,” Duggan says. “When the feds had the seminar in Minnesota, I got those doctors to go along with me. After three days, they were very excited, and we came back to Detroit with that attitude. I’m picking people who are leaders and change agents by their nature. If you engage them and allow them to take an active role in the direction you’re headed, you don’t have to do anything. They’ll just take over and embrace what’s happening.”

Duggan placed his dreamers and complainers in influential positions, leveraged their passion to improve, and allowed their attitude to become contagious to the rest of the DMC organization. Once the doctors bought in, administrators and staff members followed the example and started to believe in Duggan’s plan.

“I think once the hospital staff and administrators heard the doctors talking with more enthusiasm, we started to see more interest in our meetings,” he says. “Now, I think you’ll find the leadership at all of our hospitals deeply involved in the planning. But it’s like any new idea. It takes awhile to catch on.”

Any major change is going to challenge your ability as a communicator. Even after the initial rollout of your plan, you’ll need to keep your message in front of your people, and continually give them opportunities to offer their opinions and ask questions.

Like many leaders of large organizations, Duggan has created numerous touch points between himself, doctors and hospital staffers, in an effort to ensure that their engagement level doesn’t wane as the ACO model moves from a novel concept to an everyday way of life. Duggan says communication is still a work in progress.

“If the doctors have one criticism, it’s that we have not communicated frequently enough,” he says. “There is a whole series of steps involved, and we’ve been putting more rigor around it. I wanted a monthly newsletter, but it didn’t go out every month. We were busy, so we stopped and said ‘You know what? This is going to be a priority from now on. This is going out every month.’ I think we’ve improved, but there are a lot of grind-it-out details that you have to keep executing on. There hasn’t been any magic to it.”

To an extent, the challenges Duggan faces are not unlike a franchisor. The leader of a franchise-concept company might have more control over the customer experience, but Duggan still has to get independently owned businesses under the same corporate umbrella to adhere to a uniform set of standards and practices, as DMC forges ahead into uncharted waters in the U.S. medical field. So far, Duggan believes the results have been good, but it will be an ongoing process for quite awhile.

“That’s what is going to be fascinating about all of this,” Duggan says. “The doctors have agreed to the standards and protocol, they’ve agreed to be on electronic records and be measured, and now we watching all these different businesses find a way to implement new standards in a way that works for their practice. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.”

How to reach: Detroit Medical Center, (888) 362-2500 or

The Duggan file

Born: Detroit

Education: B.A. and juris doctor, University of Michigan

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I don’t tolerate feuds among the management team. That is a guiding principle in business, for everyone to see the team as unified. You can’t drive change with people bickering with one another. You can disagree, but you can’t allow people to hold grudges.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Honesty. Really, beyond that, anything else is secondary.

What is your definition of success?

Essentially, it is succeeding in making the world a better place than how you found it.