4 Traits to Look for in a Hospital Service Line Leader

A successful hospital service line depends in large part on the strength of its leaders. Service line management requires a unique blend of skills and experience that enables leaders to understand clinical information, such as metrics used to evaluate care, and business issues, such as budgets. In a service line, "you're joining two worlds from a managerial and planning perspective, so good [service lines leaders] are hard to find," says Robert Minkin, a senior vice president of healthcare consulting company The Camden Group and a former CEO of Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver.

If hospitals know what to look for, however, the task of recruiting successful service line leaders can be easier. Here are four key capabilities hospitals should look for in hospital service line leaders.

1. Developing relationships. "One of the first things that anyone typically looks for is strong relationship development skills," Mr. Minkin says. "You have to have very good diplomatic skills and a view of the entire organization's structure and responsibilities." As hospitals and physicians continue to align, these diplomatic skills will become even more important. A close partnership between physicians and the hospital is needed to meet the quality and cost demands of today's healthcare market. "Historically, service line leaders have been the go-to people to keep physicians happy. One of the things that's changing is rather than physicians being customers, they are becoming partners. So the ability to communicate and negotiate with them is a critical element," says Peggy Crabtree, RN, MBA, a vice-president of The Camden Group and a former executive director of the cardiovascular and imaging service line at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif.

2. Thinking outside the box — literally.
Service line leaders will have to collaborate not only with physicians within their organization, but also with physicians, clinicians and community members outside the organization. "Historically, [service line leaders] have functioned within the four walls of the hospital," Ms. Crabtree says. "With the transition to more risk-based payment, service line leaders need to partner outside the hospital — home care, post-acute care, physician offices — to help manage patients across the care continuum."

For example, under the value-based purchasing program, providers will be penalized for an excess of preventable readmissions. To prevent readmissions, hospitals will need to improve the discharge process and coordinate with post-discharge providers to ensure patients will be taken care of. "Service line leaders are being challenged to manage the entire episode of care from the first point of contact all the way through 90 days post-acute discharge," Mr. Minkin says.

3. Analyzing data. One of a service line leader's primary responsibilities should be analyzing quality, financial and operational data to identify weaknesses and create strategies for improvement. These leaders need to process a significant amount of data, translate it into useful information and develop action plans to respond to that information. "The ability to analyze data and turn that into a standardized process is an important skill set for service line leaders," Ms. Crabtree says.

Each service line will have metrics specific to that specialty that are collected nationally. For example, cardiology reports door-to-balloon time: the time between a heart attack patient's arrival and his or her treatment. There are also some metrics that are universal across service lines. Each service line can calculate cost-per-case, which takes into account both fixed costs, such as the facility, and variable costs, such as medical devices. Focusing on metrics is essential for service lines to meet goals of standard, quality care at a low cost.

Having a clinical background may help service line leaders understand these metrics and determine solutions, according to Ms. Crabtree. While a service line leader often partners with a medical director to run the service line, the leader can gain credibility and trust by sharing some clinical knowledge with the physicians and staff he or she is managing.

4. Determining the strategic direction. Service line leaders' ability to analyze data is important because these leaders are increasingly being called on to make strategic decisions that affect the service line and the entire hospital. "Service line leaders used to be the daily operational problem fixers," Ms. Crabtree says. "Now, that role needs to be somebody who can lead strategic efforts and be effective in that. They need to be able to drive the changes that create value. They have to have the skill set to analyze data and then strategically use that data to drive change and standardize care."

To effectively drive a service line in a strategic direction, service line leaders need to be open and transparent with the service line's medical director and the service line's physicians and staff, according to Ms. Crabtree. Transparency will foster trust, which will help leaders gain buy-in to strategies to improve the service line's quality and costs.

More Articles on Hospital Service Lines:

3 Universal Behaviors of Successful Hospital Service Line Leaders
Choosing the Right Service Line Leader: Q&A With Renown Health EVP David Veillette

Herding Bengal Tigers: How to Manage a Hospital Orthopedic Service Line

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