Fort HealthCare CEO Michael Wallace on executing a vision: 'I like to be 8 for 10 rather than 3 for 3'

Since joining Fort Atkinson, Wis.-based Fort HealthCare as president and CEO in 2006, Michael Wallace has implemented a vision and executed strategies to improve health outcomes in the community and the state of Wisconsin.

Mr. Wallace's vision, leadership and dedication helped Jefferson County, where Fort HealthCare is located, move from the 33rd spot out of 72 counties to the 9th spot in 2017 on the University of Wisconsin Population Health Initiative rankings for overall health outcomes.

In addition to his executive leadership role at the health system, Mr. Wallace, an untiring advocate for better health in Wisconsin, served as the chairman of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, is a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives and holds a board position at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce committee.

Here, Mr. Wallace discusses a few key takeaways from his role at the WHA, describes his best colleague and shares his thoughts on the future of rural healthcare.

Note: The following responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is your favorite part about being a CEO in the healthcare industry?

Michael Wallace: I think short and sweet, articulating a vision and making it happen. I enjoy talking about things, organizing people and seeing it come to fruition a few years later. Taking concepts and making them a reality is something I enjoy. An example of a vision that has come to fruition is changing our mission. About eight years ago we changed our mission and vision to improve the health and wellbeing of our community … and our vision was to become the healthiest community in Wisconsin. We organized ourselves in a way and held up our benchmark, and the work that we've done has moved us into the top 10 out of the 72 counties when we started out as 33rd. There's a lot that's gone into making it happen, but the main thing I enjoyed was keeping that vision and executing it.

Q: What are a few key takeaways from your role at the Wisconsin Hospital Association?

MW: I think an awful lot about the WHA, and a main takeaway is that advocacy works. Testimonials from the field drive the legislative process. Legislators want to hear how a policy will impact operations or how the lack of legislative action would affect players in the healthcare space. I am a firm believer in the process. We are the face of healthcare and if we are not out trying to improve or represent our constituents we will not be represented.  

Another thing is the culture of 'competitors coming together for the greater good' —players from Milwaukee, Madison and other metropolitan areas are considered competition, but the entire group comes together and spins their hats around to collaborate. A good takeaway from this is just knowing to set aside individual silos and organizational strategies to find the areas of agreement.

Q: If you could change one thing about healthcare overnight, what would it be?

MW: I would increase patient engagement, prevention and self care. People can no longer be passive in healthcare. While [providers] can offer counseling, interventions and other services — the single greatest determinant of a patient's health is the decision or decisions he or she makes outside of the hospital or doctor's office.

I think this lack of patient engagement is a challenge in healthcare. We have insulated the patient or consumer too much from the true cost of care and accountability for their overall health outcomes. We can put together outstanding care plans detailing what people should do, and then they leave the ER, or office and the noncompliance of the patient causes the patient to boomerang … they crash, they come back … we rescue and save them again. We are very good at that. But we should be better at the public health approach. So much of what we treat is lifestyle driven illness, we know it's treatable, manageable and, in many cases, curable but patients need to be engaged. They can't just wait for the magic pill or intervention. I wish I could change the level of engagement overnight.

Q:  Describe one of your best colleagues. What is it that this person brings that is indispensable to your organization?

MW: The people who have had the most influence on me, both presently and in the past, are leaders with a people-oriented leadership style. Healthcare is a people-oriented business; we take care of people so it takes that type of leadership style. People in those leadership roles need to be visible, available and approachable. You have to have all three. There are many leaders that are visible but not approachable … it's finding that blend to be in touch with what will make the organization better.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would offer to other CEOs

MW: I'd say visualize the outcome you want and then go get it. I also like the phrase 'try hard, fail fast, move on, start over…' You're one step closer to a solution if the last one didn't work. But don't let perfect get in the way of good. I like to be 8 for 10 rather than 3 for 3… Failure is the byproduct of trying to move an organization forward. If I get 8 of 10 things right, I am going to end up further along, closer to my vision than if I wait to be sure about everything to get that perfect 3 for 3.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of rural healthcare?

MW: I am very optimistic. I think rural health is critical to the overall success of our healthcare delivery system. Simply stated, as you decrease access to care you increase cost of care. Rural health increases that access and can overall lower that cost. That upper respiratory infection that can be treated with a script of antibiotics … if you decrease access to that care, it becomes full-blown pneumonia, it becomes an ER visit with a $10,000 hospitalization and yeah, we saved the patient, but if they had better access to care or if we preserved rural healthcare we can mitigate some of those conditions with early detection, prevention and wellness. All roads can't lead to the big city, certainly some roads need to lead there for tertiary care, but it's in our interest to preserve and protect the rural healthcare system.

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