UVA Health on quest to be nation's top public academic system, CEO says

K. Craig Kent, MD, serves as CEO of Charlottesville, Va.-based UVA Health and executive vice president for health affairs at the University of Virginia. 

Before joining UVA Health in February 2020, Dr. Kent spent four years as dean of the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. He was also previously chair of the department of surgery at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison and served as chief of the division of vascular surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, both based in New York City.

Dr. Kent told Becker's Hospital Review he's excited about the many parts of UVA Health's first-ever enterprisewide strategic plan. He shared details about the plan, his top priorities for this year and how his clinical background influences his leadership style. He also offered some advice for his peers.

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

Question: UVA Health, a six-hospital academic health system, has unveiled a 10-year strategic plan that aims to improve access to care by hiring more primary care providers, expand its specialty care network and biotechnology research program, and invest in its community and workforce. What has you most excited about this plan?

Dr. Craig Kent: The plan involves all four of our missions: clinical care, research, education and community. We tried to get every employee to contribute to the plan, and we were successful in engaging 4,000 or 5,000 people in some form or another. 

The plan began with the idea that we want to be a nationally recognized academic health system. So then you think about growing research and growing clinical trials, and you think about things like differentiated programs, the latest in technology and surgical interventions. That's where the plan was headed. And then somewhere along the way, we were tapped on the shoulder thousands of times and told, "It's going to be hard to achieve all of that unless you become a really good organization," meaning a best place to work or a patient can call and get an appointment in your clinic or every part of your organization runs efficiently, including the operating room. So we paused at that point and then really divided the plan into two parts. One was what I'll call the "good" part of the plan, which is we're trying to be a stronger, better organization for our people, a workplace of choice. 

The second part of the plan is about being "great," meaning growing research and growing differentiated clinical care and being a destination for education. If you look through the plan, it's really a mixture of both. But now more than ever, the fundamentals are important. If there's not enough staff anywhere, and if you're not a workplace of choice, if you can't encourage your people to be excited about your organization and stay part of your organization, you're not going to be successful.

Q: What are a few of your top priorities in 2023?

CK: Staffing is our top priority for 2023. We now have about 900 travelers and between our various hospitals are struggling to keep beds open, keep the operating rooms functioning. Our emergency room is always overwhelming because we don't have enough staff. We have beds. We have ambulatory facilities. However, we don't have enough staff to take care of all the patients that want to come to UVA Health. 

So that is an imminent issue that we need to solve. And we've created some reasonably innovative approaches to it. We're beginning to have a significant amount of success. There was a period of time when the number of people leaving the organization was higher than the number of people arriving in the organization. I suppose that was true for a lot of places. About five or six months ago, that turned, and we're recruiting quite a few more people than we're losing. We need another year of that before we might be able to catch up, and I'm sure it'll be a bumpy year. 

Then on the "great" part of the strategic plan, we have received a $100 million gift to launch a biotechnology institute, and we hope to have another couple hundred million from the state. And then we're putting in resources, and we hope to invest about a half a billion dollars in the biotech institute with a new facility and 100 new researchers coming to UVA Health. The focus on this is translational research, meaning the types of ideas that become a phase one clinical trial and eventually become FDA approved. So part of that work is greatly enhancing our clinical trials and partnering with biotech to bring new discoveries to people. So, if you asked on both sides of the strategic plan, "What are my No. 1 priorities?" Staffing on the "good" part and this biotech institute on the "great" part.

Q: How does your physician experience inform your leadership style?

CK: I've seen a lot of great health system leaders, and some are not physicians and some are. I can only speak for myself. I'm a vascular surgeon, and for many years, a very busy clinician. At one point, I was doing 300 or 400 cases a year. I love taking care of patients and seeing great results after a good operation. But what that really means is that I've been sitting around waiting for an operating room to come available at 11 p.m. on a Friday. I've been backed up in the clinic when there aren't enough rooms and staff. I've been frustrated by decisions that senior leadership made, that from my perspective years ago, didn't make sense to me. Of course, now they all do. But having lived those experiences, and probably most importantly, I achieved the joy of taking care of patients, being in front of a patient and seeing somebody helped by what you do. It gives me a different perspective on healthcare that I feel like I wouldn't have if I didn't have that clinical experience. So when a clinician comes into my office and complains about this or that or is concerned about safety, I get it completely. I understand that. I'm empathetic to their issues. I think it maybe enhances my passion to try to solve problems, make it better for the physicians and the nurses and all the other healthcare workers, because I have that background, I've been there. I've done it. At the same time, there are nonphysicians who are great CEOs and have that compassion. I don't think it's black or white, but it certainly helped me in my ability to lead.

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

CK: Be positive, be optimistic, be perseverant. Most importantly, remember why we're here, which is to take care of people's health. Go back to the fundamentals of an individual patient in the operating room or in the clinic or in a hospital bed and what they're there for and what incredible privilege we have to be able to help those people. If you can remember that, then when you hear the latest economics of your organization or hear how many travelers you have or learn that your emergency room was backed up last night, it gives you some positivity to hold on to, to look forward to, to make it feel like it's all worth it. CEOs are trying to keep things moving forward, and make sure all those patients are taken care of. So that would be my advice: to stay with it, stay optimistic and remember why we're here.

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