Kaiser CFO's advice to healthcare leaders: 'Get comfortable with being uncomfortable'

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Kathy Lancaster is the CFO of Kaiser Permanente. The Oakland, Calif.-based health system  consists of 39 hospitals and 12.5 million health plan members, with an operating revenue of $88.7 billion in 2020. Ms. Lancaster spoke with Becker's over email July 15 about her priorities and concerns for the organization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Question: What are the biggest lessons you learned as Kaiser Permanente's CFO during the pandemic?

Kathy Lancaster: A crisis like the pandemic requires a fast response and creates an opportunity for innovation. From supply chain to care delivery, we had to look at creative solutions to address the uncharted waters of COVID-19 to support the health and safety of our 12.5 million members, 217,000 employees and 88,000 clinicians, and our surrounding communities.

Our integrated model has allowed us to redeploy resources to keep our hospitals and specialty care facilities, such as cancer treatment centers, open to care for members who need in-person visits. As the pandemic began, our facilities' leaders and employees were able to double our bed capacity. As COVID-19 testing became crucial in fighting the pandemic, we installed over 100 temporary facilities for testing and vaccination and built a new COVID-19 testing facility in under 60 days. Additionally, we established programs to provide continuity of care for our members who lost coverage because of the pandemic.

Our previous technology investments played a huge role during the pandemic. Our digital capabilities and infrastructure enabled Kaiser Permanente to continue providing care to our members in their homes through telehealth visits and mail-order pharmacy – with over 80 percent of ambulatory care visits at the height of the pandemic being virtual.

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of Kaiser Permanente's integrated model and reinforced our digital organizational capabilities. It has shown us the benefits of being an agile, resilient system able to shift priorities and resources quickly to best care for our members and communities. 

Q: What are your top priorities for Kaiser Permanente for 2021 and 2022?

KL: Our top priority continues to be the health and safety of our members, workforce and communities. We are focused on ensuring members who may have delayed care due to the pandemic are getting the care they need as well as continued efforts to increase vaccination rates and treat COVID-19 patients.

Another major focus will be shifting to a digital-first system. To continue providing new, innovative ways for our members to receive care in this evolving healthcare landscape, we must invest in new platforms and tools for telehealth and member care management. We will look at new technology to support seamless digital experiences that personalize care, empower healthy living and bring technology advances into our facilities.

At the end of the day, we want to continue our mission of providing high-quality, affordable healthcare and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve.

Q: What are some of your biggest financial concerns coming out of the pandemic? 

KL: Everyone deserves high-quality, affordable care and too often it is an inhibitor to many people in the U.S. This is something Kaiser Permanente wants to continue addressing for our members and communities.

Our unique integrated care model and membership structure along with sound, consistent investments in our infrastructure, technology and virtual offerings help optimize healthcare and access for those we serve. As we look to the future, finding new ways to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare will be a continued focus.

Q: What advice do you have for other healthcare CFOs?

KL: For a long time, healthcare was slow to change. COVID-19 turned that standard and accelerated change. We must embrace change even though change is not always comfortable. My advice would be to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it will help achieve things you never thought possible. 

I encourage everyone to engage and empower their teams to have a role in driving change and to take ownership of the opportunities ahead. Our job is to provide the support they need to advance new care models and other opportunities successfully.

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