Michael Dowling: 6 priorities for health system leaders in 2017

As one year comes to a close and another begins, I'd like to take this opportunity to break down what I see as the biggest leadership imperatives for U.S. hospitals and health systems in 2017.

There is general consensus among healthcare providers and executives that the industry is not only in the midst of one of the most rapid periods of change in history, but that the complexity of care and regulations is unprecedented. Despite the sometimes turbulent conditions we work in, it is critically important that we maintain a positive and supportive attitude and keep focus on the most important issues.

Here are six priorities I believe should be top of mind for health system leaders in 2017.

1. Continue the drive forward. If your organization is in the transformation game, keep pushing the agenda forward in 2017. A lot of people are concerned about what's going to happen in Washington with the new administration and Congress, particularly the fate of the Affordable Care Act. Irrespective of the outcome of those debates, healthcare leaders should never let their organizations be completely controlled or constrained by them. If you're already transitioning your organization to deliver value-based care, my advice is not to be perturbed by the craziness that goes on in Washington — keep transforming.

2. Increase focus on social determinants of health. Every organization that is serious about reform must figure out how to deliver medical care to individuals, families and communities while addressing the social determinants of health that affect our day-to-lives, such as affordable housing, job security, education, emotional wellbeing and access to affordable, healthy food. Healthcare organizations predominantly focus on the medical care side of the healthcare business, but the greatest influences on our health come from life circumstances and personal behavior. If we ignore those factors, we will be woefully underprepared to embrace value-based care delivery and outcomes-based reimbursement models. Healthcare leaders must look for ways to deal with the social determinants of health in caring for their patients if they want to make a bigger dent in improving the health of the communities they serve.

3. Identify future talent needs. As you look five to 10 years out, I suggest you identify current and anticipated skill gaps within your organization. What kinds of talent and capabilities will you need? What kinds of training mechanisms and learning experiences will help keep staff relevant and adaptable to the changing healthcare environment? This coming year will be a good time to conduct a complete rethinking of the human capital investment across the board — for physicians, nurses, administrators and executives.

4. Get lean. It is becoming more critical than ever to focus on performance, execution and making your organization as lean as possible. The only thing more worrisome than major disruption to healthcare reform from Washington is the potential for further reductions in Medicare reimbursement, which have adversely impacted all providers. If health systems take another financial hit over the next several years, we will all have to figure out a way to be more efficient and productive with fewer resources. While efficiency is an ongoing objective, I think we need to put an even greater focus on becoming even leaner in the years ahead as we prepare for the certainty of federal policy changes and new legislation.

5. Invest in telemedicine. Telemedicine will assume an even bigger role in the delivery of care in the years ahead, as we continue to move away from the traditional brick and mortar structures we've been living in for the past 50 years. While emerging technology affects all industries, it will influence healthcare to an even greater degree as our industry evolves. Patients want to receive certain types of care and medical advice right in their homes, and organizations that recognize this and focus on fulfilling consumer demands will be the most competitive.

6. Retain a strong sense of optimism. The cup is still half full — not empty. There are many great things happening in healthcare, and many more successes than we take credit for or talk about. At the end of the day, as our organizations evolve, leaders must have an optimistic, can-do attitude. Irrespective of what's going on around us, our employees want to believe in their organization's goals and mission. No one wants to listen to people who complain. Attitude — especially among leaders — wields significant influences over the mindsets and behaviors of others. We do good work, so let's be proud of it.

More articles on leadership and management:
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AHA CEO Rick Pollack: How to redefine the hospital for the future

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