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'Change is tough for everyone': Novant, New Hanover Regional CEOs on the challenge ahead

Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health was one of three major health systems competing to expand in North Carolina by securing a deal to partner with or own New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C. Novant Health emerged as the winner in July, and recently, it secured a crucial approval in the deal from the New Hanover County Commissioners. 

The commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the deal, which is valued around $5.3 billion. 

Becker's Hospital Review caught up with Carl Armato, president and CEO of Novant Health, and John Gizdic, president and CEO of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, to discuss what the integration process will look like, what excites them the most about the partnership and how they handled any staff or community reservations about the deal.

Editor's Note: Responses were edited for length, style and clarity.

Question: What excites you the most about the partnership?

Carl Armato: I am so excited and eager to work with all of the team members and physicians at New Hanover Regional and engage with the community. The cultures of our two organizations are already so closely aligned. Additionally, I am excited to come together to drive best practices, expand access to care locally and really help people stay home for care, including those very complex care needs. 

John Gizdic: To me what is the most exciting is what is possible. This relationship makes so many things possible for our organizations. We have a great staff and outstanding providers. This partnership and support from Novant Health provides us the resources to achieve our mission. Improving access to care and the value of care is also key. Novant has a track record of improving quality care and lowering cost, and this is something we want to replicate. 

Additionally, New Hanover has one of the most unhealthy populations in North Carolina, and we are in a state that ranks in the lowest quartile in the nation. Novant is recognized for its work in health equity and eliminating those health disparities. We are excited to elevate the health of our community. 

Q: The deal is with the North Carolina attorney general for review. When do you expect a decision, and what will the integration process look like if that approval is secured?

CA: The regulatory review process needs to happen before we can close. However, Novant Health is committed to aggressively working to get the approvals needed. We are hoping that we can close by early 2021. As soon as that occurs, we will begin combining and integrating. John will be leading our integration team. 

JG: This has been a remarkable and quite unprecedented process throughout the last 18 months. Because we are a public hospital, we followed state statutes and appointed a 21-person community advisory group to lead the process. These 21 people had diverse backgrounds and spent well over a year understanding the challenges we faced and what would be best for our organization. It helped us obtain community buy-in early in the process. Since day 1 of the process, [New Hanover] has been in touch with the attorney general's office, getting them anything they need to facilitate the review process. From an integration perspective, we actually kicked off Oct. 6 with 300 leaders internally. I talked to them about what to expect and what's next. 

Q: There were some last-minute attempts to block or delay the vote on the deal. How did you as leaders respond to these delays and reassure the community and staff that this is the right partnership for your organizations?

CA: We constantly talked to our staff and the community about the cultural alignment and how the partnership would result in the delivery of superior outcomes. We also constantly shared what the real value is for the community and continued to communicate with residents. We also conducted surveys along the way. We did some early surveys, and most people were not aware of the partnership. However, the last survey we did, almost 75 percent of respondents were supportive of the partnership. Just 10 percent or less said they didn't support it. 

JG: We did quite a few things to ensure staff knew the value this will bring to our organization and our community. We were also committed to transparency. I conducted CEO forums every single week, answering questions and communicating to them and ensuring that co-workers, their families and friends had all of the facts available. In addition, the partnership advisory group was so committed to finding the right partner and engaged with the community through every avenue. They engaged one-on-one with community members and answered questions. I think that commitment to transparency led the sentiment in the survey that Carl referenced. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge ahead?

CA: Thinking about the integrations I've experienced in my 34-year career, I think the biggest challenge we will come up against is that change is tough for anyone. What has worked well for us in the past, and what we aim to do going forward, is remind people how to bring the mission, vision and value to life. We want to emphasize that those are not just words that just show up on a bulletin board and work toward bringing each word to life and ensuring that each team member feels like they are part of something with purpose and can drive unbelievable outcomes. Even though integration is initially difficult, once people buy into the culture and purpose, remarkable outcomes are achieved. Novant Health also believes in New Hanover's team and is committed to investing in the team and the partnership.

JG: This partnership has the ability to truly transform our organization and the health in a region that is one of the most unhealthy. It's up to us to seize this opportunity and work through change. It is a very exciting challenge and one that in the end we know we will overcome because we have improved the health of the place we live and the future of healthcare for generations.

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