The corner office: SSM Health's Bill Thompson on the power of curiosity

Since adolescence and throughout his career, William P. Thompson has relished any opportunity to learn. His sense of curiosity at a young age is what first exposed him to the possibility of working in healthcare, and it is what drives him to always seek new information, experiences and ideas for improving healthcare delivery today and in the future. 

Mr. Thompson has served as president and CEO of St. Louis-based SSM Health, one of the largest integrated Catholic nonprofit health systems in the U.S., since August 2011, and has been with the health system since 1980. Before stepping into his current role, Mr. Thompson served in various leadership positions at SSM Health, including president and COO and senior vice president of strategic development.bill thompson ssm

At the helm of SSM Health, Mr. Thompson oversees 30,000 employees in four states across 20 hospitals, 60 outpatient care sites, a pharmacy benefits company, an insurance company, two nursing homes, comprehensive home care and hospice services, a technology company and two accountable care organizations.

Dedicated to quality improvement, Mr. Thompson co-authored the book CQI and the Renovation of an American Health System – A Culture Under Construction with former SSM Health President and CEO Sister Mary Jean Ryan in 1997. Mr. Thompson and Sister Ryan were responsible for the health system's decision to adopt continuous quality improvement in 1990, ultimately leading SSM Health to become the first healthcare organization in the U.S. to receive the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Mr. Thompson earned a master's degree in hospital administration from Saint LouisUniversity in 1978.

Here, Mr. Thompson took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

I was fortunate to find an Explorer Post, a career training program provided by Boy Scouts, that was sponsored by our local hospital when I was in high school. The hospital administrator was the post leader and provided us the opportunity to interact with all aspects of patient care. The physicians and staff of the hospital were very generous with their time, giving tours and providing talks about all aspects of patient care and hospital operations. Up to that point, I was totally unaware of how rewarding a career in healthcare could be, and it opened my eyes to the fact that there were opportunities to serve, aside from clinical care.

What do you enjoy most about St. Louis?

The diversity. While relatively small and easy to get around, St. Louis is a city with many neighborhoods that have maintained their cultural identities. St. Louis also has a great entertainment scene, including the St. Louis Symphony, the Fox Theater and the Peabody Opera House, which attract first-rate entertainers and events. Even with the recent departure of the St. Louis Rams, the city continues to enjoy two highly successful professional sports teams: the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Blues. And what I personally enjoy most are the great restaurants. St. Louis is a "foodie" city with great ethnic food, neighborhood bars and world-class restaurants. There's something for just about everybody in St. Louis.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

It would be to reduce the administrative burden on the healthcare system. By some estimates, up to 30 percent of healthcare costs are spent to comply with regulatory and other requirements that are imposed upon the healthcare system. The sheer magnitude and complexity of the rules and regulations are mind-boggling and have reached a point where we find rules that contradict each other or that can actually impair our ability to provide high-quality care. Of course, I recognize that a reasonable level of administrative oversight is necessary to help prevent fraud and abuse of the system, but the sheer size of the governmental bureaucracy and the duplication of reviews and audits have led to significant waste. By reducing this waste, we could provide more resources to the actual delivery of care.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

It's probably an attribute that helps me both inside and outside the C-suite, and that is curiosity. I'm just naturally curious about how things work, whether it's how we deliver care on a patient unit or how an electro-diesel locomotive works. The Internet, along with sites like Google and Wikipedia, is a marvelous invention that gives us the ability to get our questions answered and provides resources for delving more deeply into a topic. The downside of being curious is I tend to ask a lot of questions, which can drive some people a bit crazy.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I enjoy reading escapist novels, mostly mysteries and thrillers. Just spending a few minutes at the end of the day with a good book helps me unwind and relax. I also enjoy travel, and while it's difficult to unplug completely, I try to limit myself to checking emails only once a day while on vacation.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

To set time aside every week to keep up with the industry literature, which was probably easier to do 30 years ago than it is today. Today, information flows at an unbelievable pace and it is impossible to keep up. I would paraphrase that advice to set aside time every week to scan the literature. Try to get a sense of what's going on around you, not only in healthcare, but in the world at large. Read what interests you or what you need to focus on as determined by your own priorities. Let the rest go and try not to feel bad about what you can't do.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at SSM Health so far?

While SSM Health has had a great number of achievements, I can't claim credit for them myself. Our significant achievements are due to an engaged management team and a passionate and committed workforce. Every day, this group of talented and dedicated people strives to live our mission of providing exceptional healthcare to those we serve. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have had the opportunity to work with this group of people and to make some small contribution to their achievements for the past 35 years.

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