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Health Care Leadership: Why its Hard, Why Many Fail and What it Takes to Succeed

The bulk of my work centers around gathering data, analyzing trends and working with the leadership of various organizations to implement strategy or more centered, strategies.  The process is iterative, interactive and always fascinating.  Throughout my career, I’ve worked within (virtually) every health care industry segment and seniors housing segment. I also counsel and have worked with entities that buy, sell, invest in, consult with, account for, finance, and research health care and seniors housing businesses. Its my work with the latter that is the genesis of this post and my decades of work with the former that is the “content”.

There are two fundamental reasons why health care leadership is hard and different from leadership duties in other industries: 24/7 demands and the immediacy of the customer to the enterprise.  Health care and seniors housing (regardless of the segment specific) never closes, has no true seasonality, and demand can increase and decrease with equal force and equal pace, almost entirely related to external factors and forces.  Pricing for the most part, other than seniors housing, is almost immaterial and unrelated to revenue.  No other, non-governmental, business is as regulated and scrutinized and mandated transparent than health care.  Likewise, no other business has the mandate that the full array and intensity of all services must be available 24/7, on immediate demand, with no ability to defer, fallow, or limit.  Even a 24 hour PDQ won’t have all services available constantly (if the hot dogs run out, they are gone!).

While other industries will have close customer contact, health care has a unique, and intimate relationship with its customers.  In SNFs, Assisted Living Facilities, Seniors Housing, etc. the customer is present for long-periods (years).  In hospitals, the customer is present for hours, days, up to weeks at a time (the latter rare unless we are talking LTAcH).  In the health care setting, the enterprise has total responsibility for all needs of the customer – great to small.  The quality of care and service to all needs matters and is measured, reported and today in many regards, tied to compensation. Back to the PDQ, the over-done hot dog costs the same and there is no governmental entity that maintains a hotline for customer reports and investigations regarding the quality of the hot dog.

In health care, there is a very unique and in many ways, perverted twist concerning the customer relationship.  The customer today is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde manifestation.  No other industry has customers that are bifurcated as such – the payer being a consumer unique and separate from the actual present being.  Health care entities, to be successful, must satisfy both and manage the expectations of both, seamless and fluid to each party.  I know of no other industry where on any given day in a hospital for example, where it is likely that of 300 individual inpatients there are dozens more of the payer/insurer consumers requiring unique attention, simultaneously.  Miss a step, miss a form, etc. and the payer consumer refuses to pay for the human consumer that is receiving or received the care.

Because of the “constant” nature and customer relationships (coupled with many other reasons of course), health care leadership is hard.  It is hard because these two fundamental components are nearly, completely, out of the control of the leader.  The leader can only react or respond but truly, never change the paradigm or structure and always, in terms of the payer customer, sit beholding to the rule changing process and bureaucracy of the payer customer.  This last element can be unbelievably insidious.  For example, in the State of Kansas, dozens of SNFs face grave peril in terms of solvency because the State cannot efficiently certify eligibility for Medicaid for qualified seniors.  The delay has left dozens of facilities with Medicaid IOUs at six digits and climbing – the human customer receiving care, the paying customer bureaucratically inept and unwilling and incapable of paying its bills, and the SNF sitting with no real recourse.

Given the above, its frankly easy to see why so many leaders fail or simply, give up.  The deck is stacked toward failure.  On the expense side of the equation, because of mounting regulation, fewer elements are within a leader’s control.  With a rare exception, revenue is completely beyond control in terms of price and reimbursement for services provided.  With RAC and other audits, revenue initially earned can be retrospectively recast and denied.  (The PDQ six month’s later decides to recoup payment for the hot dog because, in its infinite wisdom, you didn’t need to the eat the hot dog or you should have made a wiser food choice).  The overwhelming variables that can contribute to failure in a micro and macro sense for a leader are not lessening.  His/her organization is open and under scrutiny, 24/7.  He/she must oversee and be accountable for the health outcomes of a human customer that in turn are interpreted by the payer customer (remotely), subject to alteration, and retroactive scrutiny.  Today, success isn’t just based on what occurred at the point of service but after the service concluded.  The enterprise is at-risk for human behavior (compliance and non-compliance) of the consumer for not just days post service but months.  Further, the enterprise is at-risk for the satisfaction of a consumer whose behavior and lifestyle may have significantly contributed to his/her need for care and service initially.  As one executive told me recently; “We have to tell people the truth about their disease, figure out how to make it sound good and nice, and hope that we have done so in such a life affirming fashion that the patient will give us 5 stars for service.  Figure that one out”.  Alas, perhaps failure is inevitable.

Aside from failure correlating to burn out or shear “giving up” (the average large system executive tenure is less than 10 years), the failure in leadership that I see resides primarily in two areas.  The first is an inability or lack of willingness to realize that the paradigm is constantly changing today and the pace of which, is accelerating.  It is human nature to seek equilibrium; to pursue elements of stasis and calm. The same ( is) anathema to leading a health care enterprise.  The second area is aversion to risk.  Precisely because of the first point, taking risk or being capable of tolerating large elements of risk is imperative today in health care.  The best leaders are true entrepreneurs today.  They see opportunity and are willing to pursue it with vigor.  They find the niches and pursue them.  Every bureaucracy and rapidly changing industry paradigm begets opportunity with equal pace and ferocity.  For example, the growing “private, non-reimbursed” service sectors in health care that continue to grow and flourish because of and in-spite of the heavily regulated, price tied market.  I know of and have consulted for, provider groups that have moved further away from Medicare and managed care to private payment with phenomenal success.  Was the strategy a risk?  Yes.  Most would not take this type of risk.  I am harkened however by the notion that at times, the greatest risk present is the risk of doing nothing.

Successful leadership and leaders today, those that I know, have the ability to think systematically and algebraically – to solve the industry polynomials with all of the variables.  They are inquisitive by nature and unwilling to accept the status quo, regardless of where and why.  They embrace the famed Pasteur quote: “Chance (luck) favors the prepared mind”.  They also have the soul and panache (tempered) of Capt. Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of the Caribbean).  They like risk and have the entrepreneurial heart and mind to innovate and move fluidly through problems and challenges such that the same are opportunities.  They don’t allow their enterprises to become complacent or bureaucratic.

Today, success is about better – better products, better service, and better care.  Payers are demanding accountability and want an increasing level of care and service for lower levels of payment.  That is the paradigm and it is moving to higher levels of accountability and lower levels of overall payment.  The best execs know this and don’t quibble with it (much).  They realize that success if about adapting the enterprise accordingly while finding the pliable spots that such an environment creates.  These spots are service lines, system enhancements, productivity improvements, and different levels of patient engagement.  Similarly, they realize the risk limits of concentration – too much exposure to certain payers.  They have seen this trend coming and have already moved.  For those still trying to reverse or slow the trend, this is where failure first begins ( the search for stasis in a rapidly changing world).

 

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April 1, 2016 - Posted by | Assisted Living, Home Health, Hospice, Senior Housing, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , ,

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