ECU Health's CFO on embracing 'building a new plane while we're in the air'

The last year has been a bit of a blur for Andy Zukowski, who started his role as CFO of Greensville, N.C.-based ECU Health on Nov. 28. 

Mr. Zukowski told Becker's the year has been about getting to know people while at the same time "moving quickly for change and transformation that really sets us up for a successful next couple of years as the industry continues to recover and move our way out of the pandemic and into this new normal that we're all dealing with."

He has also gotten acquainted with ECU Health's complex patient population and the niche of rural healthcare and what it means to be a rural healthcare provider across 29 counties in the eastern part of the state. 

"And while doing that, we're building a new airplane while we're in the air it feels like," Mr. Zukowski said. "For me it's been a rewarding experience knowing that I'm making a big impact across all the communities that we serve. So all in all I would summarize it as a positive experience. It's been full of change, full of challenge. It's really been impactful from the community perspective as we're trying to retool and rebuild for the future."

As has been the case for health systems across the country, labor costs have been one of the biggest challenges ECU Health has faced over the last year. 

"When you're thinking about our demographic and our patient population, we're having to make significant investments — which are appropriate for our future — in our people as we think about retention, recruitment, trying to balance out some of the high contract labor [cost]. In addition to that we're in a market where we need to attract the best providers to deliver that care, provide access points, so we've also made intentional investments in our people in terms of physicians and midlevel providers. … We're increasing our costs and investing in our people because that's the future. It's been a welcome challenge for us to take the dollars that we do have and invest appropriately for the longer term."

Those investments have included compensation, training, education and well-being. 

"As we think about where we're at as an organization and industry, we need to care for ourselves and our people in our teams," he said. "We've made investments in a chief well-being officer, for example, as well as other incremental programs to help improve the health and wellness of our team, our people, our providers as they deliver care." 

Mr. Zukowski said healthcare went through a difficult time during the pandemic, with high turnover and providers leaving the industry because of stress. 

"There's a traumatic experience for everyone," he said. "What we're trying to do financially is create a culture that we can win, that we will be successful, that we will find our way to the other side. … Our biggest financial priority right now is changing the culture toward continuous improvement in really empowering and enabling people and teams to do the things that are right and supporting them with the right process and tools to then drive financial success."

On the horizon is Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, which begins Dec. 1. Mr. Zukowski is thankful the leaders of the state were able to come together and pass expansion legislation. 

"It expands access to care to so many thousands of people across the state and we have a number of those patients here in Eastern Carolina," Mr. Zukowski said. "It's a real critical element, a great program, I think for healthcare here in North Carolina. 

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