'Healthcare should not be a luxury': Woman's Hospital CEO on building healthy communities in Louisiana

Barbara Griffith, MD, is the president and CEO of Baton Rouge, La.-based Woman's Hospital. She took the helm just a few months before the pandemic struck worldwide. Here, she discusses the unique challenges of addressing health equity and social determinants of health in Louisiana and what changes she'd like to see in the healthcare industry.

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

Question: What makes leading a women's hospital unique from a traditional hospital?
Dr. Barbara Griffith: The mission. As a specialty hospital, we have the ability to focus all resources and energy into a smaller number of service lines, which allows us to advance them faster.

Q: You were selected as the CEO just months before COVID-19 hit. What has been the most difficult part of your transition?
BG: The most difficult part of coming into a new organization during this time has been the inability to connect to people in normal ways. When COVID-19 hit, I was still learning and meeting new people, which is difficult to do while wearing masks, using Zoom, etc. It limited my ability to develop relationships and make connections in ways that would have been possible had the pandemic not happened.

That being said, there have been many positives that have come from experiencing a global pandemic early in my tenure. The singularity of the moment created cohesion at Woman's Hospital and in the industry. Our leadership team and staff are used to events like hurricanes and floods, but this event provided us with another opportunity to learn how to quickly adjust and pivot in new ways. Despite our competitiveness, the healthcare industry regionally, and across the nation, found ways to come together to best serve our communities. Truly, the health of individuals took center stage across the world and healthcare faced, and continues to face, these challenges together. 

Q: What is one change made at your hospital during the pandemic that you will keep around? 
BG: Our team had to learn to be nimble, to be comfortable responding quickly to the needs of our patients and community. Decisions that typically may have taken longer to finalize were made quickly and confidently, and we were able to do things like standing up a full COVID-19 unit in just a few days.

And because we had to limit physical interaction and in-person meetings, we've had to do a lot of our communication virtually, which means we've really had to improve the ways in which we communicate as leaders among each other, with our employees and patients. We had to be more creative and fluid in when and how we email, text, chat, Zoom and host online clinical appointments. Many people were forced into using these new tools, and they like them.

We also had to change how we ordered and managed supplies because of shortages and transportation issues. These changes have led to cost savings and more efficient processes overall, and we have adopted most of these permanently.

Q: As an emergency medicine physician, what skills do you think best prepared you for your leadership roles?
BG: Emergency medicine is about teamwork. I learned this very early in my career, working night shifts with a fantastic group of people. Every team member's contribution is critical to the success of each patient. I've carried this with me through every leadership role I have been in.

Q: What piqued your interest about transitioning from a physician to a hospital leader?
BG: Hospital leadership allows me to have influence over the success and well-being of more than just the patients I care for. Transitioning from being a provider to an administrator has widened my ability to impact change and to develop programs and policies that improve not only a patient's outcomes and experience while at the hospital, but their overall health before they ever have to be a patient. Ideally, as a healthcare leader, you want to play a role in creating a healthier community. 

Q: What is one project you're working on at Woman's Hospital that you're most excited for?
BG: Attention to social determinants of health is long overdue, especially in Louisiana where we, unfortunately, tend to be on the bottom of national health rankings. We are looking at all of our patient outcomes through the lens of health equity and understanding the true drivers of health in our community. This work is the pathway to true change.

Q: If you had the power to change one thing in healthcare, what would it be?
BG: Having access to adequate healthcare should not be a luxury as we often see today. The structure of payments between insurance companies and healthcare organizations has become so complicated and complex in recent years, and unfortunately, the burden often falls on the consumer. At the end of the day, we all want better health outcomes for all, and I'd like to see payment structures and policies that support this.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
BG: Before coming to work for Woman's, I knew of its reputation for being a great place to work and to receive care. During COVID-19, and in all of my experiences since joining the team, these notions have been reinforced. Everyone at Woman's is proud of their work and they truly care about their patients and are committed to doing everything possible to deliver the best outcomes. This hospital would not be in the position it is without such strong and passionate employees. They are critical to my success and the organization's success.

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