Chuck Lauer: Keep it Simple

At a time when we in healthcare are considering some very sweeping innovations, we need to remember the old axiom: Keep close to your roots. Now, more than ever, we need to keep things simple and not stray from our mission.

Chuck LauerI sit on a U.S. advisory board of a European healthcare information technology company that has been introducing its product to the United States. It's a great product, and at a recent meeting, company executives were telling us about their plans to adapt it for non-healthcare uses. A U.S. hospital executive on the board had a few words of advice at the meeting. Stick to your knitting, he said. Focus on selling its core product and don't go off on tangents.

I spoke up in agreement. Yes, taking a core product and developing add-on uses is tempting, but you shouldn't do it when you are entering a market — and maybe not even when you're established. The goal should be keeping with what you do best. Don't go running off in different directions because you'll end up diluting the quality of your core product. The company executives listened and seemed to get the point.

It's no different for hospitals and health systems. As they come under pressure to make fundamental changes in payment methodology, care delivery and core relationships with patients and providers, the temptation is to search for new fiefdoms and territories to conquer. When everything is being turned on its head, it's easy to forget your mission and go off on tangents.

I have always been a believer in simplicity. In 1976, when I was named publisher of Modern Healthcare, it was a new opportunity for innovation. The hospital market was about a $600 billion industry, and yet there was no single publication directed to hospital C-suite executives, talking about the business side of running an institution.

That's the editorial need we saw, and we set about developing the best editorial product we could possibly design. Modern Healthcare became a profitable and popular business news magazine because it stuck to its editorial philosophy of giving C-suite executives a quality business news publication second to none. Over the years, there were temptations to go off in different directions, but the original editorial philosophy always came first.

It's all too easy to get caught up in your own success and want to experiment with new ventures and new markets. In the process, however, your core product can get lost. In healthcare, for example, the need to rebuild an aging facility can turn into erecting a lavish temple to healthcare. Similarly, efforts to integrate healthcare delivery can morph into an ambitious, majestic plan to hire as many physicians as possible. And the desire to improve negotiations with payors can lead to grand plans to swallow up nearby hospitals and found a healthcare empire.

If you want to get an idea of how hospitals can go wrong, read the book, "Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care." The author, Marty Makary, MD, is a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Reading this book, you'll be shocked at how far some healthcare executives have strayed from the premise of a hospital's fundamental reason for being.

It's easy to lose sight of your mission, whether you're in the business of taking care of patients, putting up buildings or running a parking garage. The message is simple: Always keep your basic business in mind. Work every day on making things better for your customers. Only when your business is viable and making money should you look around for other possible opportunities. And even then, be careful to not get caught up in the glitz and the infatuation that comes with the sweet smell of success.

Here are a few ways to keep things simple:

1. Reexamine your mission statement. When you take time to seriously reread your mission statement, you have an opportunity to rededicate yourself to the core principles of the organization. If the mission statement doesn't appeal to you, it might be time to rewrite it so that it reflects what you and your colleagues feel it should say.

2. Remember why you got into healthcare. Quite a few healthcare executives have told me they took the time to sit down and spend time recalling why they entered the healthcare field in the first place. In this way, they found new inspiration in what they do for a living.

3. Identify the key issues. Spend a day or two with your C-suite staff and identify the key issues in your day-to-day work. Remember, your success and the success of the organization is dependent on the skilled performance of your people. They need guidance and direction.

4. Engage in mentoring. Be open to helping anyone that asks for your assistance, which is what we mean by mentoring. As we try to do more with less, mentoring has become a lost art in healthcare, but it is necessary if you want to bring out the very best in your team.

5. Keep your life simple. If you really want to succeed and grow, keep your life simple both personally and professionally. Be disciplined in everything you do and inspire others by your dedication and principles.

6. Stay in circulation. Always be visible and available, within reason. Hospital executives should be readily recognizable to all employees. Take time to walk around your facility and strike up conversations. Ride the elevator, visit all your departments and take lunch in the cafeteria every so often.  

7. Tear down the gossip mill. Do not tolerate rumors and character assassination, because they destroy individual initiative and harm efficiency. Gossip is a product of closed societies, like the old Soviet Union. The antidote is to be candid, open and respectful of others.

8. Keep on being modest. Smile and have a sense of humor about yourself! Don't get too caught up in your personal myth, or you could end up like the emperor with no clothes.   

9. Be brief. Keep your comments brief and to the point! People will stop listening when you provide long, convoluted answers to simple questions.

10. Think outside the box. New technology provides new ways to make things simple. For instance, Ian Morrison, a futurist in Menlo Park, Calif., asks why hospital emergency rooms, famous for their long waits, can't be more like Open Table, the online platform that books restaurant reservations.

This is an upward struggle. The healthcare industry has the habit of making simple issues — life and death, sickness and health, pain and relief — as complicated as possible. We have an elaborate oversight mechanism, complex insurance eligibility rules and convoluted steps of care. As we rethink healthcare, it should be our job to restore its simplicity.

Chuck Lauer (chuckspeaking@aol.com) was publisher of Modern Healthcare for 33 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.

More Articles by Chuck Lauer:

Chuck Lauer: What's Really Happening to Healthcare?
Chuck Lauer: What Makes a Great Mentor: 10 Traits of True Leadership
Chuck Lauer: An IT Boondoggle?

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