2023: The year that changed the CEO role

The CEO role at hospitals and health systems continues to evolve as organizations navigate industry challenges. This evolution is often part of short-term and long-term strategy. 

Here are some of the ways the CEO role has evolved in 2023:

The silent stress of CEOs

Like clinicians, hospital and health system CEOs have experienced burnout. This burnout, as well as unaddressed isolation, could be contributing to healthcare's high turnover rates, Jeff Comer, PsyD, who was recently named to the helm of Show Low, Ariz.-based Summit Healthcare, told Becker's earlier this month.

U.S. hospitals have seen 126 CEO exits through October of 2023, a 62 percent increase from the 78 reported in the same time period last year. A 2022 survey from executive search firm WittKieffer also showed that burnout appears to be on the rise among healthcare C-suite executives.

However, executives don't often talk about these issues, according to Dr. Comer.

"We feel as leaders that we have to be confident, we have to walk into a room and we have to take command, we have to show that we know what we're doing, we have to have all the answers," he told Becker's. "And of course we can't; that's not possible. But that's kind of the story we tell ourselves. And when we have burnout, a lot of us executives feel shame because we don't feel strong. We feel that we're weak." 

Dr. Comer recommends that CEOs take control of their thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and that they set a four-hour window of daily productivity punctuated by meaningful breaks spent listening to music, meditating or planning.

CEOs recalibrate amid scarcity

Hospital and health system CEOs are turning their attention to transformational work to balance growth and innovation with the pressures of today's environment.

Many organizations are focused on realigning leadership structures to ensure long-term success. The specific reasoning for the decisions and the details of the changes vary. But among the reasons provided for shifts are greater collaboration, consistency of patient experience and to further integrate operations across hospitals. 

Executives are also focused on pursuing excellence amid scarcity. They are paying attention to upholding the high quality in their work, on their team, and with their direct reports or managers, as well as building trust with front-line workers.

Additionally, CEOs are navigating shortages and other challenges related to the workforce. Many healthcare workers left their jobs or the industry altogether in recent years for numerous reasons. An estimated 145,213 healthcare providers left the workforce from 2021 through 2022, according to an Oct. 16 report from Definitive Healthcare. This included an estimated 71,309 physicians, 34,834 nurse practitioners, 13,714 physician assistants, 15,332 physical therapists and 10,024 licensed clinical social workers. 

With this in mind, recruitment and retention remain a key focus for executives for certain roles, and part of that focus involves ensuring workers' well-being.

The rise of the dual-role CEO

Multiple health systems this year have named executives to a second, dual role within the organization. 

For example, Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care named Nkem Iroegbu, MD, president of its Cudahy, Wis.-based St. Luke's South Shore hospital in November; he will take on those responsibilities in addition to his current responsibilities as president of Milwaukee-based Aurora Sinai Medical Center. And in August, Hazard, Ky.-based Appalachian Regional Healthcare appointed West Virginia Region CEO Jeremy Hall to the helm of its Big Sandy region, too.

This trend comes as health systems are increasingly aiming to streamline their leadership structure to provide oversight most effectively.

Renton, Wash.-based Providence confirmed to Becker's in October that it is phasing out the CEO role at its Napa-based Queen of the Valley Medical Center and Santa Rosa (Calif.) Memorial Hospital. A single chief executive — Garry Olney, DNP, RN — will oversee operations in the Northern California service area, replacing the CEOs of those hospitals.

"This was part of a systemwide restructuring to streamline executive roles so we could preserve more resources for front-line caregivers and become nimbler and more responsive to the times," the system said in a statement. 

Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist also said this month that several leadership transitions are in the works at some of its community hospitals as it is developing a new, streamlined leadership model across the facilities. As part of the restructuring, Chad Brown will serve as president of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist's South and West areas; Cathleen Wheatley will have executive oversight over Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Davie Medical Center in Bermuda Run, N.C.; and Bill James, who became president of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Lexington (N.C.) Medical Center in 2014, will step down from the position.



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