An efficiency 'easy button' that hospital CEOs overlook

Most incoming CEOs have devoted their focus to the hospital setting, whether operational or clinical. Kevin Cullinan, on the contrary, has spent the past few years outside of it. 

Mr. Cullinan recently assumed the top job at Lakewood, Colo.-based St. Anthony Hospital after serving as chief ambulatory officer for the Colorado/Kansas/Utah division of CommonSpirit Health (the hospital's Chicago-based parent company). He oversaw several aspects of ambulatory care – home health, hospice, transfers, virtual care joint venture partnerships, urgent cares and freestanding EDs, to name a few — and told Becker's his time outside the hospital has altered his perception of what goes on inside of one. 

"The ambulatory role has definitely given me a perspective on what it can look like and how it can go before and after patients are in the hospital," Mr. Cullinan said. "We focus a lot on emergency department visits in the hospital because that determines what happens in the rest of the facility, same with surgical volumes. But when you look at how many patients we treat in our urgent care centers, our surgery centers or imaging centers, it's a lot more than what we see in our hospital. There's a lot more of those sites." 

The early interactions a patient has with a health system are vital, according to Mr. Cullinan. Urgent care visits and outpatient care sites influence patients' perceptions of the brand; if they ever need to go inpatient, they should already have established trust with the hospital they choose.  

"I view every touchpoint that patients have outside the hospital as an opportunity," Mr. Cullinan said. "Each one of those individual facilities — anywhere in our ecosystem, across our division — has a chance to leave an impression of what CommonSpirit stands for and the level of care we provide, the level of compassion that we provide." 

As a hospital CEO, it can be easy to put the blinders on, per Mr. Cullinan. But as health systems continue to pour into ambulatory care opportunities, it is important for all leaders to lean into integration: to exist outside the vacuum of their own facilty. 

"It's really easy to get tunnel vision once you're trying to keep things running in a hospital that is busy like this, and like many others are," Mr. Cullinan said. "But having aligned partners that have aligned values, aligned goals, that are held to the same care standards is actually really important to me. For our care management staff and physicians and others that are constantly looking for an easy button, having a robust ambulatory footprint can be a major differentiator for a health system and for a hospital trying to make things work as efficiently as possible." 

That collaboration defines a health system, according to Mr. Cullinan. 

"The ambulatory part of our organization is what makes us a health system," Mr. Cullinan said. "Without it, we're hospitals and doctors offices. And that is not a health system." 

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