6 questions with Dr. Imran Andrabi, CEO of Mercy Health-Toledo

Imran Andrabi, MD, wears many hats. As of March 5, he is president, CEO and chief network integration officer of Mercy Health-Toledo (Ohio), which serves 20 counties in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Dr. Andrabi also serves as board chair for Mercy Health Physicians, which represents more than 1,300 providers in Ohio and Kentucky. A physician leader and health system executive, Dr. Andrabi is uniquely poised to bring "frontline" experiences, questions and concerns to the C-suite. He leads the Mercy Health system with a nuanced awareness of the many clinical and administrative perspectives that influence the workings — and ultimately success — of an organization.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How does being a physician lend you unique capabilities as a hospital leader, as opposed to solely having a business background?

Dr. Imran Andrabi: Some of my opinions might seem a little biased, but having the perspective of a practicing physician for the last 23 years is pretty unique. I still see Dr. Imran Andrabipatients and teach residents in our residency clinic, so it makes it very real in terms of seeing what we're doing in the community in Toledo. This perspective helps in working with administrators, as it allows me to contribute first-hand knowledge and stories from physicians on the frontlines. When you can speak [physicians'] language and share experiences, it creates a lot of credibility with respect to other physicians. Many times I hear them say, 'I don't have to explain this to you — you know what I'm saying.' Being a physician administrator allows me to bridge the language between the clinical and administrative. 

In today's healthcare environment, with the growing emphasis on population health and clinical integration, having a background understanding of how patients and their families traverse the healthcare system brings a unique perspective to the table in terms of strategy, execution and decision making.

Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles you've observed regarding physician engagement at Mercy Health? Have you identified any tactics that are more effective for promoting engagement than others? Does being a physician yourself help in this regard?

IA: I think one of the biggest challenges — and this really isn't an obstacle but an opportunity — is giving the physicians who see patients on a daily basis enough time and space to understand the changes happening in the healthcare environment and the impacts these changes have on them, their practice and the people they take care of every day. This is a challenge — not only from a knowledge and understanding point of view — but from an engagement perspective as well.

Every opportunity we have we utilize to educate our physicians. We have hosted town hall meetings and retreats with physicians and presented them with continuous educational opportunities. One thing we have really invested in is physician leadership at various levels: from the physicians practicing within a single practice to overseeing multiple practices to being administratively involved and engaged in developing strategies and executing plans. We also have physicians on many of our boards. Additionally, we have formally invested in physician leadership development to not only create today's leaders but leaders of the future. The more they can be involved in the overall thought process and development of strategies, the better they will understand the changes before all of us and be more likely to engage their peers effectively.

Q: What is unique about your market? What must you factor more into your strategy than you would if your organization were elsewhere in the country?   

IA: The healthcare environment is changing very rapidly, more rapidly in certain markets than others. Our market is one of those that has seen a significant amount of change — from a population health perspective, a managed care point of view, in terms of mergers and acquisitions and regarding physician employment. Change is happening much quicker than most people expected to see it. That is one of the challenges that we have to keep in account from a strategy perspective.

We need to look at the investments that would best serve our communities and the right investments for the future. The traditional thought process of being hospital-based is, in our opinion, is not where our future lies. This is not to say that hospitals don't have to be extremely capable, efficient, effective and quality-focused, but our ambulatory footprint, access and an EHR integration strategy [are] extremely important. Developing a clinically integrated network of physicians and enhancing the continuum of care with other community partners is another piece of that strategy.

There has also been a lot of physician employment activity in our region, which creates a unique challenge from a strategy perspective. While we do employ physicians, we also partner with physicians in the region. Almost 40 percent of the physicians in our network are affiliated physicians not employed by Mercy. We don't take a one-size-fits-all approach. We look at what makes sense and what will best suit the healthcare needs of our community.

The 2008 economic downturn had a significant impact on the market as well — from an economic and healthcare utilization perspective. As the economy stabilizes over the next few years, along with Medicaid expansion in the state, it will have an impact on access, healthcare utilization and ultimately outcomes.

Q: Who is your role model? What is the most memorable piece of advice you've ever received?

IA: Several people over the years have been role models in one way, shape or form, and help formed some parts of me on my journey of leadership. A couple of pieces of advice that have stood out: It's about the people, not the bricks and mortar. A mentor once told me, "The pinnacle of success is really pointed — don't sit there too long." And another thing that's stuck with me is the saying, "Make the right thing, the easiest thing to do."

Q: What do you see as the most pressing challenge for your health system in the next five years?

IA: I think the same thing that's probably on top of everyone's list: understanding where the healthcare future lies and making sure we are heading there as an organization. We are not necessarily at the bleeding edge of where things are going, but we're certainly at the cutting edge. Making smart investments in the future, particularly in an ambulatory-focused strategy, is very important to population health and managing the continuum of care.

Managing talent in the future is also extremely important. As the economy improves, talent will become scarce. Those who can manage it better will fare better. Lastly, we need to create a culture for the organization that is responsive to any changes in the environment and sets us up for success.

Q: What are you most optimistic about?

IA: Being a healthcare ministry that's been in Toledo for 160 years, I'm very optimistic about our mission and what we are trying to do. I'm optimistic about our vision of the future and how healthcare needs to meaningfully improve the health of the community. Our promise as an organization is to make healthcare easier, and to genuinely enjoy being of service to the people we serve so we may improve their health — mind, body and spirit. And most importantly, I'm very optimistic about our people. They are what differentiate us as an organization.

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