The corner office: OSF HealthCare CSO Michelle Conger on enhancing the humanity in health system strategy

As health systems increasingly embrace value-based payment models and population health, many have identified a need to create new organizational strategies to propel them in the right direction. According to Michelle Conger, chief strategy officer at Peoria, Ill.-based OSF Healthcare System, few healthcare leadership opportunities are more rewarding then helping design a health system's future.

Ms. Conger joined OSF HealthCare in 1994 and has been CSO since 2010. As an architect of the health system's strategy, Ms. Conger has the opportunity to work closely with a diverse team michelle congerand positively affect patients' lives. In the CSO role, she serves as a partner to the CEO, board and senior leadership team during the generation and refinement of the organization's long-term strategy. She is also responsible for ensuring the health system's key strategic initiatives, marketing and business development plans are aligned with OSF Healthcare's mission.

Ms. Conger has led a variety of transformation initiatives across the system, including the implementation of Epic's EMR, population health strategy development and the creation of a system wide program management office.

Before being appointed CSO, Ms. Conger served as senior vice president of the performance improvement division and executive director of planning for the information technology division at OSF Healthcare. She holds a Six Sigma Black Belt and Six Sigma Master Black Belt. Ms. Conger holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Here, Ms. Conger took the time to answer Becker's seven questions.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare? 

I was always interested in doing something where I could connect with people. A long history with an ill relative — my brother — definitely helped shape my thinking and made me want to do something that would allow me to contribute to something bigger than myself.

I think most people who get into healthcare have that drive. And a lot of healthcare executives and providers have had some sort of experience, either with a relative or themselves, that connects them to the healthcare industry. It's nice to connect your personal and professional life in that way — it's what makes healthcare such a fulfilling line of work.

What do you enjoy most about Peoria?

It's small enough for the community to feel connected, but large enough to offer a lot of the same things you find in larger cities. There's a huge healthcare talent pool and substantial diversity in terms of restaurants and entertainment.

From the healthcare perspective, the size of Peoria gives us a large opportunity to design care for a variety of communities. The Peoria metro area has about 350,000 people, whereas some of the smaller communities we serve have between 18,000 and 20,000.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

When I really get down to thinking about it, I'd like to eliminate the barriers that exist between traditional healthcare providers and other providers in the realm of social services, behavioral health, housing and food security. If we could eliminate the barriers in how we work together, we could move up stream to create value and really keep people healthy.  It moves us from episodic care for disease to community care.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

I studied psychology and social work, and I think one of my strengths is connecting with and getting to know people — meeting them where they're at. I enjoy doing that not only at work but also in the community. There are lots of ways to extend that capability beyond my daily work. I think these interpersonal skills are sometime more complex than the day-to-day technical skills we need to be successful.

How do you revitalize yourself? 

I revitalize myself in a couple of ways, one mental and one physical. I think executives can get overwhelmed with all of the information they're constantly having to take in, but I really like to read. I force myself to read things other than nonfiction — books and stories that help you think differently and more creatively. Right now I'm reading a novel called Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It's a story about loss and how it impacts people over time. It's sad, but very good.

I also like to run. I do it for relaxation and to release some energy outside of the work environment. And now I have a teenage son that goes for runs with me. It's great when you have a teen you can share a hobby with that you both enjoy.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly? 

One is the importance of courage in leadership. I remember one of my first mentors, the COO at a large hospital where I was working in a project capacity. I was looking for guidance. She taught me that when you don't have the answers, you have to have the courage to move forward to try to solve the problem without all of the answers.

Another memorable piece of advice came from my boss today, OSF HealthCare CEO Kevin Schoeplein. He told me that you have to find joy in the everyday because healthcare can be a difficult business. It can become overwhelming if you don't purposefully try to step back and find joy in the work environment and celebrate success. I think that's good advice in the work environment and in one's personal life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at OSF Healthcare so far? 

I've been here for 23 years. I think I achieved my biggest accomplishment when I took my current role. One of the first things I had the opportunity to do was work with the CEO and the board to rethink our vision and determine how we could move forward to achieve our mission and move from a holding company to a fully integrated delivery system that cared for patients throughout the full continuum of life. Being a champion for that, revising our vision and ultimately helping improve the lives of the people we serve has been my greatest accomplishment. In my mind, it's been the best opportunity because we've taken a single idea and through the collective power of 19,000 mission partners, we are working together to improve people's lives.

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