Community Health Systems Inc. is booking small wins and banking learnings from a handful of technology initiatives that are building in part on the health systems operator’s COVID-19 experiences.
Franklin, Tenn.-based CHS, which runs 76 hospitals in 15 states and more than 1,000 sites of care, has in the past two years set up partnerships with remote patient monitoring service Cadence, perinatal software company PeriGen, virtual sitting venture Avasure and, most recently, Mindoula for virtual behavioral health services. Some of those are starting to build scale: More than 5,000 people have enrolled in Cadence’s service—which is, thanks to word of mouth among CHS physician leaders across the country, generating waiting lists for new markets—while PeriGen’s early-warning system has been rolled out to more than 50 hospitals.
Speaking on the sidelines of the recent Nashville Healthcare Sessions conference, President of Healthcare Innovation and Chief Medical Officer Lynn Simon, M.D., M.B.A., told Healthcare Innovation the company’s initiatives are focused on two simple questions: Do the technologies improve the quality of care and do they improve the satisfaction of CHS’ workforce by smoothing workflows and letting them work nearer the top of the license?
The Avasure collaboration, for instance, lets hospital staff of all qualifications focus on higher-value interactions because Avasure team members can monitor a dozen or more patients simultaneously. And Cadence’s remote monitoring results in only a handful of escalations per 100 patients monthly instead of hundreds of routine-but-inefficient phone calls to the office.
The next step for Simon and her team: Turn the smaller-scale successes from these projects into truly big wins.
“My goal is to figure out how to stack solutions so that change can be transformative rather than incremental,” Simon said.
There won’t be a single metric CHS needs to hit to be able to say it has reached that goal, Simon said. Instead, each project’s various levels of complexity and range of indicators means they’re working on separate timelines and aiming for their own targets. But over time, Simon added, the goal is to gauge accumulated gains from all the projects and be able to say that a part of the company is “operating at a totally different level than it was before.”
Asked about a baseball analogy, Simon says it’s early innings still but that CHS has potential to amass a winning record.
“We have a team with a number of veterans and some highly recruited new talent, (including some with new skills like data science [and] AI,” she said. “So while we are in the early innings of our journey, we already have a couple of runs on the board and a solid lineup (of people and projects) waiting to step up to the plate.”
There’s of course also a business angle to CHS’ work here: Despite wrestling with very high travel nursing costs during and after the peak of the pandemic, the company’s leaders have in recent years worked down the company’s labor costs as a share of revenues as they’ve invested in clinical quality. Through the first half of this year, salaries and benefits accounted for 43.4 percent of net revenue, down from more than 45 percent pre-COVID.
Further progress on that front will be impactful: On CHS’ annual revenue base of more than $12 billion, improving the ratio of labor costs to revenue by half a percentage point comes out to $60 million or more.
Innovation of the kind on which Simon is focusing was a consistent theme at the inaugural Sessions conference organized by the Nashville Health Care Council. Panel topics included adapting artificial intelligence tools, collaborating with other system stakeholders and the growing consumerization of care. Sprinkled throughout conversations were comments about healthcare organizations’ pandemic experiences—specifically the speed with which many were forced to change workflows and how regulators also needed to be flexible—and how to carry forward momentum gained from managing through COVID.
“The pandemic drove a lot of change,” said Neil de Crescenzo, the CEO of UnitedHealth’s OptumInsight group, who joined that company via its acquisition of Change Healthcare a year ago. “It got people thinking, ‘We typically did things at a speed of 1x. Then we did things at 0.1x with COVID. Can we do things now at 0.5x?’”
Simon echoed that thought on the conference’s wrap-up panel when she noted that technology increasingly has the power to remake healthcare rather than simply move work from one setting to another.
“We have to change – and we have the tools,” she said. “That makes me very optimistic.”