Luminis Health CEO Tori Bayless doesn't take herself too seriously

Growing up as one of four children, Tori Bayless learned the value of humor.

She told Becker's humor is a big part of the relationships she has with her siblings. 

"We all did a good job keeping each other humble," Ms. Bayless said. "We all learned a bit of self-deprecating humor to function and interact."

It's an experience she taps into as CEO of Annapolis, Md.-based Luminis Health, an organization formed through the merger of Annapolis-based Anne Arundel Medical Center and Lanham, Md.-based Doctors Community Health System.

"I don't find myself to be particularly comedic, but I do find that humor can be a way to really draw people in and connect," she said. "It can also break tension and sometimes put people at ease. It has a way of humanizing people, particularly those in senior leadership roles. The work we do is obviously very serious work, but it's that adage of, 'You take the work seriously, but you don't take yourself too seriously.' I just think humor can be a really good way to break tension and bring people together and get to know people in a different way, versus just strictly professional."

Before becoming CEO in 2011, Ms. Bayless was president and COO of Anne Arundel Medical Center. She shares insights about her career trajectory, her priorities for 2023 and advice for her peers.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity, length and style.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Tori Bayless: I was inspired largely by my mother being a nurse. She pivoted from being a bedside nurse, oncology hospice nurse to healthcare administration, and moved into quality assurance, risk management and broader operations as a chief nurse and a chief operating officer. I had a good role model in that regard. I also started volunteering in hospitals when I was about 14 years old — everything from working the front desk and checking in visitors to filing medical records. I also worked in the nursery and NICU in troubling situations where the babies couldn't go home to their parents. We would work with the babies in terms of stimulation and play with them. Some of them were living in the hospital nursery for 18 months to two years. This was in the late 1980s.

Q: Did you always want to be a health system CEO? 

TB: Not necessarily, but I wanted to work in healthcare. Do I become a clinician? Do I work on the public health side? Do I work more on the management side? So, I oriented more toward public health and management through my graduate work at [Ann Arbor-based University of Michigan], and early on one of our professors said, "We train people to become CEOs of health systems, and what makes you think you're qualified?" The professor would challenge us as young, earnest students in our graduate work. So, I was very interested in healthcare management, hospital management, again, having had a pretty great role model in my mother, and then through college, I had done several internships. I had an opportunity to get exposed to remarkable leaders, people I could learn from. And who took an interest in me, whether it was something as simple as shadowing a senior executive, to certain projects at work. As a part-time job in college, I helped dispatch interpreters for a large academic hospital in Boston. I was always in healthcare in some way, whether it was in a volunteer role, an internship, or a paid position as a young person, and I just kept building upon that, and ended up leaning more toward the public health and business side of healthcare versus the clinical side.

Q: What challenges and opportunities led you to the position you are in now?

TB:  Over my 30-year career, I feel fortunate that I was able to work for and with some very smart people. They stretched me and gave me opportunities, even if my resume didn't have the optimum depth of experience. You can learn academically, you can study, you can read the case studies, and then you must do the work. It's rolling up your sleeves and being willing to do the hard work or volunteer for the task force, or the new project that's coming down the pike, whether that's a new electronic medical record getting installed, or the forming of a physician hospital network in the early days, or understanding the dynamic between the provider and payer communities and how the funds flow. From a policy standpoint, spending some time with the associations and understanding the regulatory and legislative processes, I had a lot of opportunity early in my career and got exposure to so many elements of the health system. 

One of the positions that I'm very committed to in our organization are our administrative fellows. And part of it is that's how I started my career. When I completed my graduate work, I was hired as an administrative fellow. And in those roles, early in your career, without a lot of depth on your resume, you get broad exposure over the course of a year. You can attach yourself to different projects and parlay that into opportunities to really contribute where your skills are well matched. So, after I completed my administrative fellowship, I went into the world of managed care, contracting and payer negotiations. I spent time in that realm before I transitioned more to service line leadership and hospital operations management. I've been very fortunate to be given opportunities and never got in too narrow of a lane. I was able to pivot and continue to grow and learn and try to make a difference where I could. 

Then when you get into more senior leadership opportunities, and particularly you move into a president or CEO role, you're not as close to the details of any one function or department. Your role becomes creating an environment where everybody can do their best work. And making sure you're hiring the best people who have a divergent set of opinions, backgrounds and perspectives so that you're getting the best thinking around that executive table. That creates, I think, a healthy tension in an organization to make sure we're really pairing up ideas and trying to reach the best solutions. When you're facing challenges in the industry, whether those are challenges of financial instability, workforce stabilization, coming out of a pandemic, managing and leading through a pandemic, it's important to have the best team around the table and encourage that dialogue, discussion, discourse to reach the best solutions.

Q: What are your top priorities for 2023?

TB: We put together a Health Equity and Anti-Racism Task (HEART) Force and came up with a set of 10 recommendations that would connect into our Vision 2030 plan. How do we think about the care we provide, the work we do, the communities we serve with a much larger health equity lens? And some of that starts with our own workforce. How do we also think and measure and evaluate and understand the care and  outcome disparities? And how can we measure them, put a spotlight on them and then take action to address them? Health equity is a big umbrella — and our Vision 2030 coupled with our workforce recommendations have us on a journey to become a national model for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI). If anyone's a Star Wars fan, they know that the Jedi were the guardians of good and all that is right in the universe. We've got several very definitive steps we're taking, and really measuring and telling our story with that lens.

One example is in the primary care space, and how we manage our diabetic population, and particularly measuring A1C levels below 8. We looked at that data in aggregate, and it looked good. And then we looked by race and ethnicity, and we still looked quite good. And it was because of some of the structures that were put in place in the primary care practices to make sure that we were proactively managing the diabetic population — all diabetic patients.

Q: What advice would you give other hospital leaders? 

TB: We all need to be thinking about how to make healthcare more affordable. However, there are several priorities that the industry is facing. Workforce is very central, as is healthcare affordability. We need to keep sharing ideas. While there's always some competition in the market, we've got to be able to share best practices and have that exchange and have the humility to learn from each other and from other industries.

Also, we've got to take care of our teams. I know that sounds very high level, but I do think investing in and supporting our team, focusing on workplace safety is certainly a priority. You've got to bring structures and processes into your organization to make sure that you can make the changes and then sustain those changes.

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