Up for the challenge: How Allegheny Health's CEO plans to make healthcare more convenient in Pittsburgh

Cynthia Hundorfean went out on a limb when she interviewed for Allegheny Health Network's president and CEO position — she had never been to Pittsburgh, where the system is headquartered, but she was looking for a new challenge after more than three decades working in Cleveland.

She got the role and has officially been serving in the capacity since January of this year.  Ms. Hundorfean, who calls her move to Pittsburgh "the best professional decision [she's] ever made," previously served as chief administrative officer at Cleveland Clinic, a position she held since 2005, and had been in that city for more than three decades.

A member of Highmark Health, Allegheny Health Network includes eight hospitals, four health and wellness pavilions and more than 1,700 physicians. AHN also offers 46 graduate medical programs and has affiliations with two medical schools and two nursing schools.

Here, Ms. Hundorfean shares how she's adjusting to life in Pittsburgh, her leadership goals for her first year at the helm and her favorite "go-to" book.

Question: What inspires you?

Cynthia Hundorfean: Every day, I am inspired by the physicians, nurses, caregivers and other front-line staff who commit their days and nights to improving the lives of our friends and neighbors in western Pennsylvania. They are angels on earth, and the compassion and professionalism they demonstrate in such a high-stress environment is humbling to witness. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate the sacrifices they make as they provide trauma care to the gravely injured, neonatal intensive care unit services to society's most vulnerable, and comfort to those who are confronting the ends of their lives. Our caregivers see it all and do it all.

I am also inspired by AHN's amazing researchers, who are advancing the boundaries of science in a variety of fields of study, from diabetes to cardiac care to esophageal cancer. On any given day, we have hundreds of active clinical trials. The research they are doing today will become the standard medicine of tomorrow.

But most of all, I am inspired by the hundreds of thousands of patients who put their faith in Allegheny Health Network year after year, who choose our physicians and our caregivers. They trust AHN with their routine care, and they also trust us to guide them through life's most challenging moments. We don't take that trust for granted, and every day we endeavor to exceed the expectations of our patients and their families.

Q: What drew you to the CEO position at Allegheny Health Network?Cynthia Hundorfean30332crx

CH: I was ready for a new challenge. I wasn't sure what that new challenge would be, or where it would take me. As the chief administrative officer at Cleveland Clinic, I was administratively responsible for much of the clinical enterprise there. That job, I thought, had prepared me well for a CEO position should the right job open up.

I found the right opportunity in Pittsburgh. Believe it or not, I hadn't set foot in this city before coming here for the job interviews. Once I arrived here and met with the physicians and leadership team at Allegheny Health Network and Highmark Health (which owns AHN), I was convinced that this was the right spot and the right job.

It was an attractive position for a few reasons. First, I'm eager to work alongside our friends at Highmark Health. As an integrated delivery and finance system, we can invent a healthcare model that can deliver differentiated value to our customers and patients. 

I was also attracted to AHN because of the reputation of its hospitals, particularly Allegheny General Hospital. That institution, which is the AHN flagship, has one of the top transplant programs in the country. It is a pioneer in artificial heart valves and open-heart surgery. A lot of medical professionals know that, and we want more people in Pittsburgh to know that too.

So far, it has been a good fit. I am still getting acclimated to Pittsburgh and the dynamics of its healthcare market, but it's the best professional decision I've ever made. I enjoyed my 35 years in Cleveland, but now that I'm in Pittsburgh, I don't plan on going anywhere for a long time.

Q: As the network's new CEO, what are you main priorities and goals for the next year?

CH: My main priority, this year and every year, is the patient. Every decision we make — as a hospital executive, as a physician, as a nurse — has to be centered on the patient's well-being. That's our north star, and if it doesn't benefit the patient, we don't do it.

But more broadly, we will work hard to make care more convenient for our patients — that means improving appointment access, scaling up our call center, [offering] more convenient hours and beefing up our telemedicine programs. We will continue to grow our most important service lines and make smart investments in our system, both at our existing hospitals (we have eight of them) as well as our outpatient clinics and surgery centers.

For example, AHN recently opened a new OB and delivery unit at one of our hospitals. It's the first new delivery unit to be built in Pennsylvania in more than 30 years. Hospitals across the state and the country have been closing maternity wards, but we opened one because our research showed us mothers in Pittsburgh's southern communities were being underserved. That OB unit, at Jefferson Hospital, has been so busy that we're already discussing an expansion.  

Q: If you could change one thing about healthcare, what would it be?

CH: We need to make healthcare more affordable and more accessible. You might live two blocks away from Allegheny General Hospital, but it doesn't do you much good if you don't have affordable insurance or don't understand how to navigate the system.

Affordability, of course, is more than just a patient issue — employers, state governments and CMS have been telling our industry for years that we can't continue to spend $1 out of every $6 on healthcare in this country. It's just not sustainable. Part of the solution is turning our "sick care" system into a true healthcare system focused on wellness, chronic-condition management and keeping people out of the emergency room.

Q: What is the last memorable thing you've read?

CH: My "go-to" book is one that that I refer to often. It's Service Fanatics: How to Build Superior Patient Experience the Cleveland Clinic Way. It was written by a colleague, James Merlino, MD, and gets to the heart of why it's critical to constantly assess and address how we are improving our patients' experience.

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