Valleywise Health CEO: 'This is not your grandfather's county hospital anymore'

Steve Purves is the CEO of Phoenix-based Valleywise Health, a title he has held since 2013. The health system, formerly called Maricopa Integrated Health System, has undergone a billion-dollar transformation since 2014. Mr. Purves spoke to Becker's in August.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Can you talk about the rebranding of Valleywise Health?

Steve Purves: We changed our name about two and a half years ago, so I think it was around 2018 when we launched our new brand. We're not legally organized underneath the county government. We're an independent special healthcare district, which is actually a subdivision stake. So we rebranded to really better communicate with the population what we do, where we do it and how we do that. So that was a rebrand of our health system. And that coincides with a billion-dollar makeover, which includes a new hospital, new ambulatory network and new behavioral health facilities. And that was through a bond referendum that the voters approved in 2014.

Q: What are some of the trends that you're seeing at Valleywise regarding COVID-19 and the delta variant?

SP: Probably like [everywhere] else in the country, it's on the rise here in Arizona. We're seeing a younger population for sure. School has started, and so we're seeing outbreaks within our school systems. We are absolutely seeing the hospitalized patients as the ones who are not fully vaccinated. As of today, 97 percent of our admitted COVID patients were not fully vaccinated. So it truly is the pandemic of the unvaccinated right now.

Q: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges the hospital has faced throughout the pandemic?

SP: Without a doubt, it's staffing. We are really trying to focus on bedside clinical care teams and recruitment and retention of clinical care teams. What we're trying to do, obviously, is to keep up with the market in terms of pay and benefits, and also educational benefits and investment in training opportunities. But it's a systemic issue, and there aren't any quick fixes. 

Q: What are some of the biggest successes that Valleywise has experienced?

SP: I think providing access to healthcare for our vulnerable populations. We're a safety net system of care. We have a very high Medicaid population that we care for, and so one of our greatest concerns was access to care throughout the pandemic. And certainly one of the biggest successes was the rapid deployment of virtual care programs through telehealth technologies. And we stood that up very, very quickly. We went from an instant substantial number of virtual visits to over 70 percent of our visits in the ambulatory setting being conducted [virtually] in January of 2021. And so currently, and even throughout the lulls, we're seeing 20 percent of all of our patients in our ambulatory network being [met with] through virtual means. So that was a heavy lift and that was a quick lift, but that was a big success in terms of maintaining access to our services.

Q: What would you say are your biggest goals and priorities for the hospital and health system over the next one to two years?

SP: Well, certainly the biggest one is protecting the health of our workforce. We want to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to create a positive workplace climate. We also want to make sure that we stay in a growth mode. We want to make sure that our teaching program continues to grow because it's providing needed healthcare professionals throughout the state of Arizona, especially in underserved areas. And so that's a big goal of ours. And then the final one is to make sure that we achieve our goals established for what we call our care reimagined program, which is the opening of our new facilities and our new teaching hospital in the fall of 2023.

Q: Maricopa County Hospital struggled to meet the needs of patients due to challenges in technological advancement. Would you say that the health system has gotten up to speed with others?

SP: Yes. As a matter of fact, our mission certainly has not changed. The way we provide that care certainly has changed. So I like to say, we're not your grandfather's county hospital anymore. We're providing state-of-the-art, patient-centric care to the most vulnerable in our community, and they deserve that care regardless of their payer status or whether they can afford to pay. And we've done everything that we can to make sure that we've got state-of-the-art facilities, that we're reaching vulnerable patients and that we deliver culturally sensitive care. Sixty percent of our patients are of Hispanic descent, so we have a very unique interpreter service, which includes 35 full-time interpreters across our system. We have a refugee women's health clinic, and we have a significant presence in behavioral healthcare. Valleywise Health's Arizona Burn Center, which was founded in 1966, is the second-largest burn program in the United States. As part of our renovation and construction programs that were generously provided by the public through their approval of our bond referendum, we will have the most modern state-of-the-art burn program in the world. And it will be open in our new hospital in the fall of 2023, and certainly burn patients are some of the most complex that you will see in a hospital.

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