The key to a health system's growth and investments? We asked Dr. Joon Lee from UPMC for the answer

Joon S Lee, MD, is the executive vice president of Pittsburgh-based UPMC and the president of physician services of the UPMC Health Services Division. 

Dr. Lee will serve on the panel "Physician Alignment and Acquisition Strategies for the Next 5 Years" at Becker's 10th Annual CEO + CFO Roundtable. As part of an ongoing series, Becker's is talking to healthcare leaders who plan to speak at the conference on Nov. 7-10 in Chicago. 

To learn more and register, click here.

Becker's Healthcare aims to foster peer-to-peer conversation between healthcare's brightest leaders and thinkers. In that vein, responses to our Speaker Series are published straight from interviewees. Here is what our speakers had to say.

Question: What is the smartest thing you've done in the last year to set your system up for success?

Dr. Joon S Lee: Even before the extent of the "Great Resignation" and the healthcare workforce crisis became clear, our leadership team established "People" as the most important pillar for our success in early 2021. This was articulated in all our leadership forums and cascaded throughout the organization. We emphasized that "Human Capital" was the most important investment for our organization. Of course, this investment has continued and actually accelerated as the healthcare worker shortage became an ever-increasing problem. Unfortunately, it did not prevent the workforce crisis from becoming the dominant challenge for our management team. Still, it put us in a better position to respond to unpredictable challenges as well as to implement proactive and creative solutions rapidly. For example, in addition to the pay practices, everyone has been trying to address, we have created an internal agency model and aggressive pipeline expansion for skilled healthcare workers ranging from surgical techs to nurses. None of these or other tactics are enough to solve the workforce issue. Nevertheless, they clearly place us in a stronger position to reestablish a stable workforce as quickly as possible.

Q: What are you most excited about right now and what makes you nervous?

JL: We are living through the most tumultuous period for healthcare in several generations. Several years from now, when we look back at the three to four year period starting in 2020, I think it will turn out to be the most transformative period in healthcare in several decades. Many forces (increasing fragmentation, digitalization, challenge of bedside healthcare, inequitable access, etc) that are changing the healthcare landscape have been building for years, but their impact has been magnified and the demand for solutions by patients, the public, government, and others have become stronger. With issues like inequitable access to healthcare and challenges of navigating the U.S. healthcare system, the pandemic exposed the pre-existing problems and their impact on our society. However, the pandemic also changed our value system in ways we still do not fully understand. How we value stable work versus the risk/difficulty of bedside clinical work or the cost of commuting versus a flexible workplace is a question that has taken more center stage. This is happening for healthcare while the breakneck pace of technological progress (both biotechnology and digital technology) continues. 

The result is that healthcare delivery will be significantly changed five years from now compared to pre-pandemic 2019. Healthcare systems will also be different, with big winners and losers. For leaders, this period is a tremendous opportunity to shape the healthcare landscape and the organizations we lead to creating new healthcare paradigms, which is incredibly exciting. Of course, the past two years have also shown us how unpredictable our overall situation is. It is very anxiety-provoking if you are responsible for an organization and its people. We are extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to create a better health care delivery system. Regardless, none of us have a crystal ball to navigate the ever-shifting landscape perfectly. 

Q: How are you thinking about growth and investments for the next year or two?

JL: Focused strategic growth will be the key. With the current economic headwinds of daunting inflation (supply chain as well as wage), persistent workforce limitations despite higher costs which further limit volume and revenue, minimal rate increases, and dwindling government relief, it is tempting to ignore any attempts at growth. But such an approach will lead to a stagnant trajectory for the organization. We must still aggressively pursue growth and invest in areas that represent the future of healthcare. The migration from inpatient to outpatient and the trend of increasing healthcare delivery in our homes will continue and failure to invest in these arenas will guarantee obsolescence. We continue to invest in facilities and organizational structures that will allow us to deliver more complex but cost-effective care in ambulatory settings. We have also created internal business units that focus solely on new models of care that maximize the care at home, including infusions, telehealth and remote monitoring.

Q: What will healthcare executives need to be effective leaders for the next five years?

JL: We will need to be more creative and flexible and yet have a stable hand on the steering wheel. When leading through stormy waters, as healthcare is experiencing now, a temptation to react to every signal (short-term financial report, volume change, occupancy, etc.) will be powerful but can also be deadly for the organization, just as a boat trying to zig-zag across large waves is more likely to capsize. However, suppose you accept the hypothesis that we are going through a transformative period in healthcare. In that case, the healthcare executive must create a long-term change in the organization, making it a winner in the late 2020s instead of hanging onto a formula that worked in 2019. If you add to this the fact most of us are dealing with a fatigued and oftentimes burned-out workforce, flexibility will be critical. It may seem like an impossible combination, but the executives who balance these factors the best will lead their healthcare teams to be successful organizations of the future.

Q: How are you building resilient and diverse teams?

JL: All the challenges we have discussed make resiliency and diversity more important than ever. We believe that resilience and diversity in leadership teams do not happen by accident but must be actively created. Of course, it begins by selecting leaders who have demonstrated resilience in the past. But individual resilience does not guarantee team resilience. A team can only be resilient if there is a common understanding of the organization's mission and vision. Without a "true north," how can the team get back on course? So start with individuals who demonstrate resilience, but then the leaders must communicate the mission and vision of the organization effectively to get buy-in so that there is collective resilience. In terms of diversity, a similar two-pronged process is critical. A selection of diverse individuals is the start. Still, unless a culture where diverse opinions, backgrounds, ethnicity, race, etc., are valued is present in the team, true diversity cannot be maintained. So in both resilience and diversity, we start with the selection process. Ultimately, the leaders must communicate the mission, vision and values effectively to the team to make it work.

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