6 thoughts from MidMichigan Health CEO Dr. Diane Postler-Slattery

As hospital systems navigate the turbulent waters of the post-reform era of healthcare, leaders are tasked with maintaining a culture of positivity, engagement and collaboration among their workforce while also ensuring quality and financial success.

This is not always easy, especially amid increasing rates of physician burnout and dissatisfaction. According to the 2016 Medscape Lifestyle Report, which polled more than 15,800 physicians across more than 25 specialties, rates of burnout range from 40 percent to 55 percent. As a result, burned out physicians are more likely to feel unenthusiastic, cynical and have a low sense of accomplishment, which can lead to disengagement and even a greater likelihood to exhibit bias toward patients.

Diane Postler-Slattery, PhD, who has served as president and CEO of Midland-based MidMichigan Health since 2013, has emphasized Diane Postler Slatterythe importance of addressing physician burnout and employee engagement since entering her role. MidMichigan Health, a nonprofit health system affiliated with Ann Arbor-based University of Michigan Health System, covers a 20-county region with medical centers in Midland, Alma, Clare, Gladwin and Alpena.

Dr. Postler-Slattery has extensive leadership experience. Prior to MidMichigan Health, she served as president and COO of 325-bed Aspirus Wasusau (Wis.) Hospital.

Here, Dr. Postler-Slattery took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review'ssix questions.

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

Question: Given the complexities of the changes occurring in the industry and their impacts on healthcare providers and staff, what do you think a health system leader's No. 1 priority should be?

DPS: I believe a leader's No. 1 priority is to create the organization's vision because there is so much changing. You must constantly look at the environment around you and determine how you can navigate the health system into the future. Having a vision of what that looks like is extremely important. In addition, a leader must ensure the system is very flexible, adaptable and change ready.

To create that kind of atmosphere, [MidMichigan Health has] streamlined all of our governance processes. When it comes to approval for decisions and projects, you must be able to move decisions through the governance structure quickly and thoroughly. We spent a year looking at our governance structure to ensure we are prepared to act quickly and appropriately to make sure we are making the right decisions.

Q: How do you see physician engagement and satisfaction impacting the patient experience?

DPS: There are five areas at MidMichigan Health that we hold equally important: quality, the patient experience, employee engagement, provider engagement and financial results. If I had to choose one of those areas that is the most important, it would be employee engagement.

If you have a workforce of highly engaged employees, the literature shows every other aspect of the organization will improve. Employee engagement is directly linked to patient satisfaction. Not only that, but high employee engagement helps provider engagement. If nurses, physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and others are working in an environment in which employees love to work, their own engagement levels and work will improve.

Q: What do you see as the main contributing factors to physician disengagement?

DPS: Physician disengagement is a multifaceted issue. One aspect is the complexity of the patients they treat and the added stress of trying to meet and work with more patients in a reduced timeframe. On top of that, there are all of the other responsibilities that have been added to the physician workload, such as documentation in the EMR. This is something that wasn't discussed during most physicians' trainings. Many physicians would say they don't want to do that, they just want to take care of patients, which leads to frustration. Then there are the regulations from payers and the government that change the way physicians are able to interact with their patients.

Another reason physicians feel disengaged is because it is becoming harder for many them to remain in an independent practice, even though they would love to stay independent. Having to come into a healthcare system to remain financially strong in their own practice has made many physicians dissatisfied because they are no longer working for themselves.

Q: How would you describe your philosophy for delivering feedback — positive and negative?

DPS: I've spent time with all of the leaders in the MidMichigan Health System, and one of the things I talked about with them is the need to create a culture where both positive and negative feedback are heard in exactly the same way. We need to have a culture in which we acknowledge each other with positive feedback, but also recognize that we owe it to our employees to deliver feedback on the things they can improve on — otherwise they will never be excellent. That goes for staff at the bedside and leaders across the organization. Everyone should be treated with respect. If people aren't living up to the vision, mission and values, it's our job as leaders to hold people accountable to those values.

Q: How do you inspire your employees? 

DPS: I would say first of all I believe in being completely transparent. We are trying to create a culture in which every employee and leader has a right to know everything that's going on in the organization, as well as what is expected of you in your role. I enforce those expectations, but I also like to have fun. We have our goals, and though there can be stress, I believe and trust in our employees that we can achieve them. And I want everyone to have fun along the way. Many of us spend so much time at work — it should be a place you enjoy coming to.

I also inspire people by being visible. I make rounds a lot and try to attend as many employee events as I can. I try to be where our employees are so I can stay in touch with the things that are happening.

Q: What inspires you?

DPS: Having a goal that you set and that everyone else says is impossible — and then achieving it. When we achieve those seemingly impossible goals, especially in healthcare, that just wows me. Then I can't wait to start working on the next one.

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