Sutter Health wants to grow digitally as much as physically, CEO says

Warner Thomas has served as president and CEO of Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health since November 2022, bringing with him more than three decades of healthcare experience.

In his current role, he leads 50,000 employees, 12,000 physicians and 2,000 advanced practice clinicians across Sutter Health. 

Previously, he spent 10 years as president and CEO of New Orleans-based Ochsner Health. He also served as Ochsner Health's president and COO from 1998-2012.

Sutter Health has big plans under Mr. Thomas' leadership. In addition to expanding its outpatient clinic and digital presence, Sutter, which welcomed a record number of resident physicians this academic year, is looking to expand its residency offerings to boost the pipeline of physicians in the region. Sutter is also undergoing a national search for a chief diversity officer to help implement its systemwide diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, a spokesperson shared with Becker's

Mr. Thomas told Becker's he's pleased with his transition into Sutter Health and is excited about where the organization is headed. He shared his top priorities for his first year on the job, discussed a few of Sutter Health's initiatives and offered some advice for his peers.

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

Question: What has you most excited about your new role as CEO of Sutter Health?

Warner Thomas: Working with the people and the teams. The people have been great. The transition into Sutter has worked out well. A lot of energy for change, a lot of energy for evolving our care model for the future. We've laid out our strategy and have a lot of momentum around that. And I was recently finishing up the meeting here with our home care board, which was wonderful, and there's a positive feeling, a lot of momentum about where we're going.

Q: What are a few of your top priorities for your first year at Sutter Health?

WT: We've set up five pillars for our strategy. One is to be the best place to work and to practice medicine. At the end of the day, we're in a war for talent in healthcare, and you've got to be the best place for physicians, for clinicians, for leaders, for nurses. And that's so important if you're going to win moving forward. You must work hard on diversity and inclusion, and build those programs. 

The second pillar is around how we coordinate and serve more patients. That's where access is the key. We're relentlessly focused on how we improve access for our patients, and that's through a large ambulatory expansion. We've been building new ambulatory locations throughout Northern California. But it's also building more digital access capability. It's working hard on service and, and how we continue to make navigation easier for the organization. Also as part of serving more patients and access is training the next generation. We need to expand our hiring of positions. We need to expand our training of physicians. 

The third pillar is to develop a connected, convenient patient experience. And our operating thesis is that successful systems in the future are going to have a large regional ambulatory platform. You must have a hospital platform as well, but the platform is critical, and you have to integrate it with a large digital platform with online appointment scheduling, analytics, to provide an integrated experience across your entire system. And this whole concept of connection means being connected to your patients all the time, not only when they're in your facilities, but when they're home, when they're traveling. Are you thinking about them? Are you being proactive in how you educate them about testing and annual physicals and annual screening? This idea of having a connected experience, a digital platform connected to a large inventory platform, is critically important.

Our fourth pillar is focused around whole-person health and moving the payment system and value-based care. Continuing to transition our thinking from fee-for-service to more global payment orientation. 

And then finally, we must be a great community asset, improving our patient community and societal health. We're nonprofit. We're here to serve our communities, and we want to do everything we can to be part of the solution to improve health in the communities that we serve. The key priorities for 2023 have really been about building the team, creating alignment, enhancing communication and transparency within the organization. Continuing to build our leadership capability and our leadership training. We're advancing our diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, and we're continuing to look at all of our market strategies, look at other opportunities to grow. 

Q: Hospitals and health systems continue to grapple with financial challenges. However, Sutter Health increased operating revenues last year, ending 2022 with $278 million in operating income. Sutter Health also reported $88 million in operating income for the first quarter of 2023 on revenues of $3.8 billion. What factors contributed to these positive results? 

WT: We are seeing growth in our patient population and the people we serve. I would also say that the organization did a lot of work on cost structure before I took the helm. Sutter Health spent a lot of time internally looking at cost structure, making changes, reducing certain areas. That indicated that we are focused on growth going forward. We're focused on how we expand the organization.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, Sutter Health announced plans in March to construct more than 24 ambulatory care centers across Northern California over the next four years. Any other expansion plans? 

WT:  We have approved a few inpatient expansions at Sutter Roseville (Calif.) Medical Center, in Sacramento, and also at CPMC in San Francisco. So I wouldn't say our expansion is limited to outpatient care. There is also a lot of work being done on our digital platform, and that is definitely a big focus for us. I think people see the momentum. Santa Barabara, Calif.-based Sansum Clinic, one of the oldest outpatient providers in the state, reached out and wanted to develop a relationship with us. And so we've got a letter of intent signed with them, and they'll be joining us later on this year. They're a high-quality group of physicians, and we're excited to work with them. So I think people want to continue to align with systems that are doing new and interesting things and have a clear view of the future. 

Q: What initiatives are planned over the next year to improve diversity and inclusion at Sutter Health?  

WT:  We are building a specific scorecard around our diversity and inclusion efforts and being clear about the metrics. We're expanding our inclusion resource groups to broaden them across our system, to make sure we have them in all of our various regions, hospitals and ambulatory locations. We're broadening them to our physicians and other clinicians, and we're building a more integrated diversity, equity and inclusion strategy with our medical groups. Additionally, you'll see us continue to roll out broader mentorship and sponsorship programs for our diverse leaders and for our diverse physician leaders to help them continue to advance their career, to give them more training and capability. 

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to other hospital CEOs, what would it be?

WT: It's about being flexible. It is about constantly learning. Nobody has the answers to all of today's challenges. Organizations that learn fastest that can implement change effectively and quickly are the ones that will do better over time. I think speed is important these days in a world that's ever changing and changing even faster each and every day. 

You also must stay close to your people. You must increase communication, increase transparency of information, and make sure you're in front of your employees with town halls, in front of your leaders letting them know how the organization is doing. There's so much uncertainty today, and uncertainty creates anxiety, it creates concern. So I know the more we as leaders can continue to communicate and create clarity around the direction and create clarity around the things that we're doing and going to do, I think it creates more confidence with our team members, whether they be physicians, clinicians or leaders.

Lastly, building the right support system, having people that you talk to, that you share ideas with. Building the right open communication with your own executive team, to me, is critically important as organizations morph and change and evolve.

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