Focus on population health, and the metrics, money will come, Gundersen Health leader says

Despite having some of the most advanced medical care in the world, the U.S. falls short on most major measures of health compared to economically similar countries, according to a report from The Commonwealth Fund.

The reason for the disparity? The U.S. spends its money on healthcare, while other countries spend on the health of their populations, says Jeffery Thompson, MD, executive adviser and chief executive emeritus of Lacrosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System. 

To change those metrics, U.S. health systems need to improve the health of their patient populations and tie reimbursement to quality metrics.

In a session titled "Sailing Into Population Health Without Sinking Your Ship" at the Becker's Hospital Review 8th Annual CEO + CFO Roundtable in November in Chicago, Dr. Thompson shared strategies that Gundersen Health System used to improve the health of its patient population while improving its financial picture.

Over the last 14 years, Gundersen Health has improved its quality metrics from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile, Dr. Thompson said, in part due to its population health initiatives and its shift to becoming a more affordable system. The boost in quality, as well as its shift from a high-cost to low-cost provider, helped the system generate more savings and see more patients, he said. 

"We changed our strategic plan. Nowhere on the strategic plan does it say make money. The only thing it said was to make care more affordable. No, we didn't ignore finances, but finances didn't rule the day anymore," Dr. Thompson said.

He also shared with the audience tips on how Gunderson was able to improve population health and hasten the shift to value-based care:

1. Build connections with the community. It is vital to create a relationship with the communities your health system serves, Dr. Thompson said. Sometimes this relationship takes some time, especially if the community has previously thought of the organization as "money-grabbing caretakers," he said. However, it is important to build these relationships and prove the system is there for the well-being of the community.

2. Partner with outside organizations. To really understand and improve the health of the community, it may take partnering with organizations that aren't providers, such as United Way, food co-ops, universities or community wellness centers. It may also be partnering with CVS or other insurers, Dr. Thompson said.

"Improving the health of a population is a big burden. It's not an impossible burden, but we can't do it by ourselves," Dr. Thompson said.

3. Hire staff that supports the mission of quality. Only hire the people that fully back the mission of differing from the competition through quality excellence and improving the health of their community, Dr. Gunderson said.

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