Healthcare 'silver linings': 21 hospital leaders on what's worth celebrating

The American Hospital Association kicked off its annual conference in Washington, D.C., on April 23 with discussions about hospital finances, rural healthcare challenges and opportunities to create better access to mental and behavioral healthcare.

Becker's caught up with 21 hospital leaders at the AHA conference to talk about what they are excited about in the year ahead. Many said with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview, they are ready to seize new opportunities and put lessons learned to work for the betterment of patient care.

"I wouldn't want to go back to the pandemic, but there is a silver lining. We learned so much," said Jim Matney, president and CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie, Ga. "Sure there are things we wish we could go back and change, but we can't do that. The upside is, as an industry, we know how to take care of patients better now." 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: What's going to make 2023 a great year for healthcare?

Patricia Banks. CEO of Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital (Ely, Minn.): We are a critical access hospital, small and very rural, but we represent a large geographic area. During the pandemic, we mobilized and worked with our public health department to help vaccinate and provide COVID care kits to people who were shut in. We also had wildfires going on that summer. And so we worked with forestry to help find places to stay for the firefighters who came to help fight fires. 

Now, we are excited about taking the lead in our community. We are focused on making sure the people in our community trust us. We are the first place people turn to when it comes to emergencies, but the pandemic really gave us an opportunity to show members of our community how much they can trust us. 

Susan Burroughs. CEO of MUSC Health-Columbia (S.C.) Medical Center Northeast: Opportunities to do some innovative things around growth, access and workforce development. We're all full force with looking at opportunities around staffing and anything that we can do to build strategic partnerships to address issues. 

We are looking at how we can connect to people that are younger to get them interested in a career in healthcare earlier. That will help us create pipelines. We are also working with some of the apprenticeship programs. Everyone is seeing the workforce shortage. Let's use this time to take on new initiatives and attract new people. 

Andrew Chelseth. Senior Public Affairs Consultant at Allina Health (Minneapolis): We're excited to figure out what new approaches we can take to solve problems going forward. We realized the old models of care aren't really going to keep us going long term, and now we have an opportunity to innovate a little bit and see what we can do differently. 

We're trying to focus on how to improve access to ambulatory surgical centers to improve the flow of our hospitals a little bit. Also, we are going to do more around preventive care and community care. These needs have always been there, but the pandemic sharpened our awareness.

Bob Coulter. Trustee at Grande Ronde Hospital (La Grand, Ore.): I'm looking forward to seeing our open positions get filled, reducing turnover and stabilizing our leadership by putting permanent leaders into departments that are now being overseen by interim leaders. We are working on an $80 million surgical remodeling project, which I'm hoping will attract new physicians and help us increase activity in the operating room.

Peggy Duggan, MD. Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Tampa (Fla.) General Hospital: We've gotten so good with analytics that we're really getting to the heart of our challenges by bringing leaders, clinicians and nurses together to tackle problems. Being able to solve problems together is just inspiring. The pandemic made us all focus on one thing and we came together to get it done. We can continue to work this way, and we must if we want to provide the best possible care to our patients. 

Marty Fattig. CEO of Nemaha County Hospital (Auburn, Neb.): We're excited about becoming more and more involved in our community and the world of population health management. We want to focus more on the social determinants of health to help our community.

Patrice Harris, MD. Former President of the American Medical Association and Co-Founder and CEO of eMed (Miami): Since the beginning of COVID, the topic of mental health has really come into the spotlight. For the first time in decades, there's unanimity of opinion on the importance of behavioral health at the federal level on both sides of the aisle and at the state and the local levels. 

No one would have wished COVID on this world, but it did elevate some issues for us. It elevated the fact that health inequities are woefully underfunded, and public health and mental health infrastructures must be prioritized. There's less shame in talking about mental health, and people can't look away, they have to notice it. It's impacting everyone. 

Nancy Harris, Vice President of Financial Services and Chief Financial Officer, Fitzgibbon Hospital (Marshall, Mo): We have put in place a financial improvement initiative to tackle the losses we've seen throughout the pandemic. These efforts have really brought our team together organizationally, and it has been great for us to see them be a cohesive group and work in a multidisciplinary way rather than as individual, siloed departments. Now we are all looking at the big picture. It is important for the viability of any hospital that we work together as a team.

Guy Hudson, MD. President and CEO of Swedish Medical Services (Seattle): I'm looking forward to more partnerships with healthcare organizations to solve problems. We're all dealing with the same headwinds, but we can all solve many of the problems together. The pandemic has been a catalyst for more partnerships, and I believe we can do more together than we could on our own. 

Shivonne Laird, PhD. Director of Community Health Impact at Bon Secours Mercy Health (Ellicott City, Md.): I'm looking forward to our efforts in health equity. We're building an infrastructure to really support an interdepartmental, intentional approach to health equity. This is a systemwide effort. It's not just about clinical care. It's also about our community efforts. 

Angy Littrell. President and CEO of Fitzgibbon Hospital (Marshall, Mo.): We've seen a little movement in the workforce in terms of being able to recruit and retain nurses. I am looking forward to achieving more success with new ideas. 

Also, we are focusing on a rebirth of service excellence. We want to know what is important for our patients and their families after the pandemic. There is more attention to self care. There's more discussion around mental health. Expectations are different and what's important to people has changed. We have to figure out how to meet these new expectations. 

Cornell Maltbia. Chairman of the Board of Directors of Conway Regional Health System (Conway, Ark.): I'm looking forward to new opportunities. Anytime that your health system is in what we consider a safe spot — budgeting is fine, staffing is fine — we may sit on our laurels. But whenever you have challenges, there are always new opportunities. So I'm looking forward to the new opportunities from our board, our leadership team and our doctors. 

Jim Matney. President and CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center (Moultrie, Ga.): We had our backs up against the wall during the pandemic. But we received federal funding to buy so many necessary things. Now we can re-equip our hospital with new beds, new IV pumps and machines with touchless technology. We have also used funds to expand our services. We've added radiation oncology so that people have access to cancer care locally. We're going to be able to take better care of our patients. 

Nathan Peterson. Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, S.D): We have come through a really critical period of time and we know there will be challenges on the back end of it. But I think this is forcing us to rethink how we've done things in the past. We can find new opportunities to improve the ways we've done business. We learned a lot through the pandemic, and I'm hoping we can continue to learn lessons and find ways to innovate and manage it in a way that is sustainable. 

Let's make sure that we don't forget the lessons we learned along the way. For example, marshaling the assets of an integrated system is, perhaps, more valuable than we knew before. We had to rework our infrastructure to do mass vaccine distribution, lab testing and we had to shift workforce around a system where and when it was needed. The things that became a necessity during the pandemic have taught us that we can be more nimble than we may have been in the past. Let's not lose sight of that.

Daniel Maughan, MSN, RN. President and Chief Executive Officer of Montefiore St. Luke's Cornwall (Newburgh, N.Y.): We are coming out of COVID a lot better than maybe we thought we'd even be. Though we still have a way to go. But I love the fact that we're back to in-person meetings.I think it just makes everyone feel good. I had my first board of trustees meeting and the camaraderie that existed was so different than the past couple of years. Everyone is reenergized and feeling that it's good to be together again.

Rachelle Schultz, EdD. President and CEO of Winona (Minn.) Health: There's a lot of opportunity for innovation. Tech is going to come forward as a way to support our staff, to support our providers and to support our patients in really different ways — and we're excited about that. 

We have already been piloting a variety of things in both clinical and nonclinical kinds of roles because of the workforce issue. We know the workforce issue is a long-term play because the pipeline has to be rebuilt. We have to redesign our care delivery system, staying very focused on taking care of patients. But the "how" in "how we do that" is what has to change. 

We have to think more broadly than just telehealth. We have to look at every process we have, every system we have and start to transition in a virtual way that supports staff. There's a lot of redundant work, rudimentary work, processing work; nobody wants to do these jobs. This is where robots can come in and help. We've got a surgical robot. We have robots that vacuum floors. Now we are seeing automated tools to support nurses. We have to commit to using these tools to help shape and change our processes.

Shanna Tello. Academic and External Affairs Administrator of the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada (Las Vegas): I'm really looking forward to improving care. Health equity is a big topic, as is mental and behavioral health. The challenge is to figure out how to do more with what you have, especially because of the worker shortage. 

What we need most is expanded Medicaid reimbursement to be able to take better care of our patients. We all got into this industry for one reason — to care for patients. I'm very excited looking at all the different legislation happening in our state.


Warner Thomas. CEO of Sutter Health (Sacramento, Calif.): There's always great opportunities in healthcare to expand and grow to serve more patients. There are opportunities to build, develop and grow the culture within our organizations. We are working to expand our ambulatory presence and serve more patients. 

We're also working hard on continuing to reenergize and evolve our culture. We want to continue to work on being patient-oriented and consumer-focused. People want to connect with healthcare — the way they connect in other industries — and we have to provide that opportunity for them. 

Rhonda Thompson, DNP, RN. Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer of Phoenix Children's Health: We are looking at incorporating technology because that's what our families are asking for. We want to be able to keep our patients at home with their family around them while getting the best healthcare. We have a malnutrition dashboard as well as a headache dashboard. These are ways parents can report on their child's status without the child having to be a patient in the hospital. By being in close touch with parents, we can see quickly if there is a problem that needs to be escalated. 

People are telling us they want to be able to use apps to communicate and determine if a doctor's visit is necessary. They are saying they don't want to spend a day in the emergency room to find out a telehealth appointment could have helped. We are looking to expedite healthcare and make it the most efficient it can be — whether that's an in-person visit, a telehealth appointment or even just a phone call with a nurse.

Jim Ulrich. CEO of York (Neb.) General Health Care Services: I would like to see improvement in efforts to chip away at the workforce challenges we are all facing. We have seen some action at the state level — getting more slots for teachers and clinical sites, for example — that will lead to creating a better pipeline for the workforce.

I'd also like to see waivers to extend policies enacted because of the Public Health Emergency — the 96 hour rule [that limits how long an inpatient can stay at a critical access hospital], as an example. These kinds of things will help the throughput and offer better access to care in our rural environment.

Fran Witt, DNP, RN. President and CEO of Effingham Health System (Springfield, Ga.): Before COVID, all hospitals had strategic plans in place. Then we all had to alter those plans. I'm looking forward to seeing the workforce stabilize. I'm looking forward to increased reimbursement so we can reengineer and recapture the volume, meet demands and stabilize financial operations. The initiatives that we have in place will help us manage costs. We are also taking a closer look at service lines that are revenue producing and basically reengineering our strategic direction for the organization.

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