High Stakes

For Healthcare Leaders Navigating Change: Start with a Purpose

For Healthcare Leaders Navigating Change: Start with a Purpose

Former CEO of Gundersen Health System explains how health systems can implement disruptive new initiatives when they’re anchored with a purpose.

The best strategy for healthcare leaders navigating change starts long before a transformation takes place. Far from being platitudes on a wall, an organization’s purpose can anchor health systems in an otherwise chaotic environment, according to Jeff Thompson M.D., CEO emeritus of Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin.

Thompson spoke with Jarrard Inc. Co-Founding Partner Molly Cate during the opening night of Health:Further, a three-day healthcare event in Nashville. The fireside chat took place onstage a few days after a story ran in the Wall Street Journal about work at Gundersen to determine what a knee-replacement surgery actually cost – something that providers have traditionally not known, nor taken the initiative to figure out.

The results from Gundersen’s investigation were startling. The system found the list price of the procedure was about five times what it actually cost to perform. Armed with that knowledge, Gunderson leaders have taken steps to change it.

The guiding force for systemic change, Thompson said at Health:Further, is a set of strong values. With them, he says, great change is not only possible, but easier to implement when necessary to survive. “Start every manager’s meeting with your purpose – put it at the bottom of every email you send to staff and on their screensavers,” he said.

“Then, when you get into an economic crisis, you can say, ‘We don’t want to raise our prices because that would hurt the patients, families and communities we serve, and that’s against our values.’ And your staff will nod their heads and say, ’Yes, that’s why we work here.’”

Establishing these values early also screens for people who facilitate a culture that is not only amenable to change, but inherently innovative. “I argue that there are a lot of ways to innovate, but smartphones weren’t built by five guys in a basement juggling Nerf balls,” Thompson said.

Instead, he added, “They were built by engineers and thoughtful people who made zillions of mistakes over time. That’s how you get forward – through broad groups of people focused on a single purpose. You give them structure, you articulate your values and where you’re going, and then you let them run.”


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