U of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics CEO: 'Everything in healthcare doesn't need to be done by a hospital CEO'

Despite branching out through nearly 60 outpatient clinics, the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City — which includes the only comprehensive university medical center in the state — by and large remains a healthcare destination.

As such, demand for inpatient services hasn't waned, but has kept on par with the surge in outpatient demand that the entire industry is seeing, Suresh Gunasekaran, the CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and associate vice president for the University of Iowa Health Care, told Becker's Hospital Review.

That's not to say strategic threats don't exist. The biggest ones threatening the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics are retail medicine providers that cherry-pick services but aren't able to provide coordinated care, Mr. Gunasekaran said.  

"It's great that today there's more convenient care being provided by retail providers. The biggest threat, though, is if healthcare consumers start believing that getting disconnected care is worth it," he said. "We're in the business of connected care."

Tackling this challenge will require input from all parties, not just the hospital CEO, he said. Here, Mr. Gunasekaran expands on how University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics is facing the threat of uncoordinated retail medicine, and answers questions on board oversight and the changing role of the hospital CEO.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for clarity.

Question: What do you consider your biggest strategic threat?

Suresh Gunasekaran: Major threats are those healthcare services that don't believe in team-based care, that focus on cherry-picking a corridor of healthcare without thinking about the health of the whole person.

There's unmet demand in communities for [accessible healthcare]. If Walmart is willing to offer a clinic, they may be the only clinic for 20 miles. What I'd hope is these kinds of Walmart and CVS providers look at how they partner with players like us. In that sense, we don't view retail medicine as a threat as much as an opportunity. But when they're not collaborative, that's a threat to us. It's only good if the care is coordinated.

Q: U of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics has its own retail clinics. How do they play into the larger consumerism trend healthcare is seeing?

SG: We're in our fifth year of offering retail urgent care clinics. We offer a setting that's lower cost and very competitive with other retail clinics. We've seen a lot of uptake and growth within this model, but it's our ability to say: Hey, urgent care and retail healthcare absolutely have a place, but they need to be connected to our lab in radiology and to our specialists.

The next frontier for us is how to partner with other retail clinics. It's easy to partner with yourself, but it's more challenging to make it work with others.

Q: U of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics is a state agency, so your board is really the board of regents of the state of Iowa. Have you faced increased pressure from the board to take up any initiatives?

SG: The board of regents has asked we keep a couple issues front and center. There continues to be inadequate maternal healthcare resources for the young moms of Iowa, with more and more hospitals unable to recruit staff to deliver babies. Data shows maternal death is increasing in Iowa, which is a very, very troubling statistic. So we are bringing the full strength of the University of Iowa together on this. We just got a huge research grant from the federal government to create better models for maternal health across the state.

Mental health is another area, and a huge area of priority for our governor. We are looking at expanding our residency program to rural areas that are underserved for mental health. Other things we're looking at is the workforce shortage and social determinants of health.

Q: How do you think the CEO role will evolve over the next decade? Will we see more hospital CEOs take stances on bigger public issues?

SG: Hospitals within the healthcare industry have [historically] been very insular. You almost could run your business without worrying about the rest of the system. Now with healthcare reform and greater governmental and employer scrutiny of healthcare costs, folks are asking hospital systems to answer for what's going on in a broader industry. And of course, CEOs have to embrace that journey.

Are we going to get involved in those multiple different steps? Not just access to care, not just the pricing of care, not just care coordination, not just how to get the community to get engaged in their own health. The CEO of the future has to have a stance on all of these, because it's impossible to go where we need to go without being involved.

Perhaps the CEO is not that important. At the end of the day when you look at these issues, it's important that we're at the table, but the community needs to come first. It's an opportunity for employers to take the lead. It's an opportunity for the government to take a lead. Everything in healthcare doesn't need to be done by a hospital CEO, and in the future, probably isn't best done by a hospital CEO. We need to be one part of the team.

Q: You've been leading the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics for a little over a year now. Is there any piece of advice you would go back and give yourself on day one?

SG: Never lose the voice of the patient. I got that at the end of my first year, and I think that beginning with the voice of the patient would've been very, very powerful. It's somewhat impractical that you show up to a new job, and of course, you're going to meet the people within your organization first. But never forgetting the voice of the patient and being able to hear who you are in their eyes and in their words would have been very powerful [on day one]. But I'm making up for lost time.

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