DuPage Medical Group planning aggressive growth, CEO says

Last summer when Steve Nelson became CEO of the largest independent physician group in Illinois, he brought more than 30 years of payer and provider experience with him. 

Before joining DuPage Medical Group, Mr. Nelson had served as CEO of UnitedHealthcare, a division of UnitedHealth Group. He had also served in executive roles at Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System and Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare.  

Mr. Nelson told Becker's he remains focused on DuPage's business growth, while ensuring the Downers Grove-based group continues to be a great place to work for its 750 primary care and specialty care physicians in the Chicago area. He shared his pandemic experiences, discussed switching from the payer to provider side, and offered some insights into DuPage's growth strategy and culture. 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What has the last year been like as CEO? 

Steve Nelson: Last year has been thrilling because of new twists and turns as we thought about working on the transformation of healthcare in this new role for me, new platform. Also, we had  — and still have  — a pandemic. If you're a healthcare company, the pandemic has several more layers. It's not just, 'Do we work remotely or not?' or 'Do we have supply issues?' You're trying to manage all the business challenges everyone else has, but at the same time, your business is taking care of people who are affected by the virus. It's that extra layer of complication that has made this last year thrilling in all the ways — the frustrating ways, the positive ways, the heroic ways. A lot of surprises that turn into opportunities to learn.     

Q: What has it been like to switch from the payer to provider side?

SN: The provider side is something that feels to me a little bit like coming home. It's where I learned about healthcare. It's always been my goal to get back into the delivery side of healthcare, and I really was intrigued and pulled to this organization specifically because of their unique model, what they've built, and the opportunities that it provides to think differently about healthcare through the lens of the patient-physician relationship. There are a lot of things that are broken about our healthcare system, and this felt like a great opportunity to change my personal journey and quest to try to make it better.

Q: How is DuPage dealing with the new COVID-19 surge? Are there staff shortages?

SN: On a relative basis, it feels very manageable to us. Our staffing's in place. We've learned a lot about innovative outpatient protocols, and we're able to apply those more quickly. We have full testing, full vaccination, full capabilities. We're handling it well. Our priority is to keep our staff and physicians safe, and then along with that, be responsive and treat our patients in the most innovative yet compassionate and effective way possible. We've been able to do that. 

Part of it is we put some things in place earlier in the year that created an opportunity for us to make sure we had a great environment for people to work. One of my objectives when I came in here is to make sure this is a great place to work, where people can do the best work of their lives, both physicians and nonphysicians. Part of that was looking at the compensation structures and our culture and whether we have an inclusive environment, where you can develop and learn. As we put that together earlier in the year, that created a nice foundation for us to be in a spot where we can compete for top talent and physicians alike. 

Q: DuPage has had rapid growth in the last year, with new deals including the acquisition of Joliet Oncology-Hematology Associates practice and a collaboration with The South Bend Clinic in Indiana. What is DuPage's strategy as far as continuing to grow its physician workforce? 

SN: Hospitals are doing great work and good things, but the role of community hospitals are going to change in the future. Payers are continually trying to figure out how to evolve and become less abrasive to physicians and try to get incentives aligned. We are sitting in the middle of that, where we aren't tethered to either a payer or hospital, so we can be pure in our agenda to create the best place for patients to get care and the best place to do doctoring. 

For those reasons, DuPage is a compelling purpose, compelling platform. There is a growth agenda that comes along with that, because we think a lot more people should have access to care, so we are embarking on an aggressive growth agenda. That's in Chicagoland, and we've already started to go outside of the area in other markets as well. In Chicagoland, we're probably going to add 170 to 180 physicians this year. That's a compelling number. That's basically hiring docs from other practices who are coming in out of training or coming in out of the area who are interested in this model. We also added the South Bend clinic in Indiana to our family. That transaction will close in the next month or so. We believe it's different than the model used by UnitedHealth Group's physician arm, OptumCare. It's different than hospital ownership groups. We have created a model where physicians can have ownership in business, and they can direct care. It's not their own practice, but they do still have a significant say and direct care as they think is appropriate. 

Q: How is DuPage addressing physician burnout and the pandemic's toll on providers? 

SN: We try to create solutions for physician burnout. We have tried to work with payers in a way that we can create a more simplistic, burden-free, less abrasive way to practice and try to filter and clean that up for our physicians. That's important. The other thing we're trying to do is bring new technology into the mix. I feel healthcare in a lot of ways is behind in terms of using effectively artificial intelligence, machine learning, other things that can bring better doctoring and more tools for patients so they can work together in a more powerful partnership. We're doing a lot of tech-enabled solutions to help physicians' jobs become better, easier, more efficient. 

We're also doing quite a bit in trying to help physicians with the emotional side of practicing medicine, whether it's coaching, or providing them coping skills and emotional support. We provided our physicians access to an app called Calm, which is a meditation/mindfulness/healthy living type of app. It's everything from sleep meditation to other tools to help you get through stressful times. 

Then this teamwork we have. We're this large organization that still feels small. We do not lose that magic, and as we continue to grow, we want to continue to have that feeling and that culture of, "We're all in this together."

If we can do all these things, in addition to making this a great place to work, we'll make a lot of progress.

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