Health System C-Suiters, Meet the Chief Population Health Officer

The hospital or health system C-suite is anything but static. As the healthcare landscape changes, so must the leadership teams of provider organizations. The rise of population health management has led many health systems to add a new member to the executive roundtable: the chief population health officer.

Jim King, senior partner and chief quality officer with Witt/Kieffer, believes the CPHO will become and remain one of the industry's faster growing C-suite positions for some time. "I think a lot of healthcare systems are trying to figure out what the new healthcare delivery model needs to look like in each of their markets," he says. Organizations are looking for someone to help lead the charge and determine what it looks like to truly manage the health of a population in their markets, which the CPHO is poised to do.

As the title suggests, a CPHO is typically charged with leading the development and implementation of a health system's population health management strategy. But the CPHO's role extends beyond the obvious, and the particulars of the job vary from system to system. Most CPHOs are also asked to establish relationships and credibility with payers and other community partners for value-adding partnerships, among other responsibilities.

In terms of cooperating with other C-suiters, CPHOs tend to work closely with the CFO and the chief clinical officer, or the equivalent, to help redesign methods of payment as the health system develops an accountable care product, Mr. King says.

What a CPHO looks like

Even though the position in the C-suite is a fairly new one, Mr. King and Witt/Kieffer have pinpointed some traits successful CPHOs tend to share. First off, every CPHO Witt/Kieffer has placed within an executive team except one has been a physician.

"This person is typically asked to take the lead not only in designing the population health strategy for the organization, but also to be the leader of the physician network organization," says Mr. King. "It is very uncommon for someone to lead that organization who is not a physician."

Besides holding an MD or DO, the following other traits are commonly shared by the CPHO:

•    Public health experience. Often, CPHOs have a strong interest in public health, demonstrated through experience working at a state or national level with different public health institutes.
•    Membership in a large physician group. Understanding how the employed physician model works is important for a CPHO, so having worked in that model can be helpful for a physician in a CPHO role. It is also important that they have "skills and experiences in influencing change in physician behaviors," Mr. King says.
•    Other advanced degrees. Many successful CPHOs have a master's degree, often in areas such as business or health administration. "They are strong, business-savvy physicians…who can look at a market, get a handle on the different demographics and help figure out what needs to be done in terms of the care redesign there," he explains.
•    Experience with team-based care. In accountable care, it becomes important for nurse practitioners, physician assistants, clinical technicians and other care providers to play a larger role in patient care. A physician in a CPHO position should have experience working under this team-based model so he or she can better communicate it to the system's clinicians.

Mr. King says there is a "very small pool" of physicians who fit the bill described above, so many systems could be tempted to snap up qualified physicians for the role before the organization is really ready to accept someone in that position. To foster success with a new population health officer, health systems leaders need to have a clear definition the CPHO's role within the organization and clearly communicate that to key stakeholders prior to recruiting a leader for the role.

Gaining buy-in from the system's clinical staff, be it nurses, pharmacists or physicians, is critically important to having an effective CPHO. "It's so important to make sure it's done on the front end, so once the search is finished, the new leaders can hit the ground running because key clinical workers already know what the role is," Mr. King says. "It's truly a team effort to transform care." 

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