The Logic Behind the Edward-Elmhurst Health/Impact Advisors Strategic Partnership

May 17, 2021
Last month, senior executives at Edward-Elmhurst Health signed a long-term contract with the leaders at Impact Advisors, signaling an unusual strategic partnership intended to fuel advancement and change

Last month, the senior executives at Naperville, Illinois-based Edward-Elmhurst Health, a three-hospital, 736-bed system in the western suburbs of Chicago that encompasses three hospitals – Edward Hospital in Naperville, Elmhurst Hospital and Linden Oaks Behavioral Health – and an extensive ambulatory care network, announced a long-term strategic partnership with the consultants at the Naperville-based Impact Advisors, a leading healthcare consultancy providing strategy, operations, revenue cycle, and technology services. The partnership is intended to “drive innovation and strengthen operations through tech-enabled healthcare solutions, ultimately benefiting patients and the communities served by Edward-Elmhurst Health.”

According to a press release posted to the Impact Advisors’ website on April 13, “The unique strategic partnership pairs Edward-Elmhurst Health’s expansive consumer-centric, mission-focused healthcare operations with Impact Advisors’ industry-leading talent and focus on driving value through digitally enabled solutions. Together, the organizations can drive meaningful change with measurable impact faster with less risk by leveraging each other’s strengths. This partnership moves away from a more transactional model and aligns both organizations’ interests to create valuable market-leading solutions that have not been done before and can transform healthcare.”

“The pursuit of innovative solutions to make healthcare more safe, seamless and personal is a passion for Edward-Elmhurst Health,” Mary Lou Mastro, system CEO of Edward-Elmhurst Health, said in a statement contained in the press release. “We are thrilled to partner with Impact Advisors so that we can accelerate our Healthy Driven approach to enhancing the healthcare experience for our patients.”

The press release went on to note that “Both organizations are headquartered in Naperville and have worked together since 2007 on large-scale projects, including strategy planning, implementation, analytics and digital health program development, Workday ERP implementation, and legacy data archiving. The collaboration will focus on three main areas: innovation and transformation, business process optimization, and information services. The following principles guide these priorities: focus on bold moves to drive meaningful change; drive value with measurable impact; build capabilities and talent; align incentives across involved stakeholders/partners; emphasize action and keeping pace with technology changes; use industry-leading practices to reduce risk.”

“We are excited about these new opportunities for innovation and strategic partnership with our longtime colleagues and hometown partners at Edward-Elmhurst Health,” Impact Advisors president Andy Smith said in a statement contained in the press release “They have transformed in tremendous ways to advance their mission and their patients’ experience through the years, and we have been proud to be part of that journey. We can’t think of a better alignment and we are committed to working together to bring the best talent, capacity, and expertise to solve evolving business challenges and help advance the healthcare industry.”  

The press release noted that “Impact Advisors is a nationally recognized healthcare management consulting and technology services firm that is solving some of the toughest challenges in the industry by delivering strategic advisory, technology implementation and operational improvement services. Our comprehensive suite of strategic planning, digital health, clinical optimization and revenue cycle services spans the lifecycle of our clients’ needs.”

Shortly after the announcement was made, Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland spoke with Edward-Elmhurst CIO Jonathan Goldberg, and Impact Advisors’ Andy Smith. Goldberg, who has been in healthcare for 30 years, and who has been a senior IT leader for over 17 years, and who came to Edward-Elmhurst on July 6, 2020. Below are excerpts from their interview.

Tell me about your newly announced collaboration?

Jonathan Goldberg: I got here to Edward-Elmhurst in July 2019, and within the first few weeks, I started meeting with our external as well as internal partners, and Andy was one. We had a lot of commonality, and kept talking. And one of the things I asked him to think about was how we could change the relationship that we had, and deepen it and reimagine what a partnership could look like between a consulting firm and a provider. And we all know that the world is changing. And so we kind of said, you know, assuming the status quo in terms of, we need help, we reach out to consulting firms, get a proposal, have them do work for us, and sign a check, and it’s very transactional. But there’s got to be a better way. What if we could create a much more fluid environment, to meet demand without requiring a lot of overhead and negotiation to access that?

So that’s where this started. We really believe that we’ve got to do things differently. And to do things differently, we’re not just trying to solve the problems we have; we have to anticipate what the problems will be, and start to think differently about how we do things.

Tell me about your organization’s decision to pursue this collaboration?

Andy Smith: I’ve been working with Edward-Elmhurst for 30 years, and Impact Advisors, for 14 years; and they’re actually my hometown provider. And I’m supposed to be the one bringing big deals to our clients; but it was Jon who approached me on us. And the question around the relationship was, how do we move from volume to value, in this relationship, just as healthcare is shifting towards the idea of value? So the thought was that if we could provide value and different ways of doing things at Edward-Elmhurst, there was an opportunity to make some real changes in healthcare.

So what does the relationship look like now?

Smith: We’ve created a joint review board, comprised of folks at Edward-Elmhurst, Impact Advisors, and our private equity firm, Chicago Pacific Founders. Four from Edward-Elmhurst, two from Impact, and two from Chicago Pacific Founders, and then a bunch of ad hoc members. And so we’ve partitioned the opportunities around innovation, process optimization, and information services partnership. So, for example, we’ve created a digital health program beginning in oncology, at Edward-Elmhurst. We’re looking at value-based care, customer relationship management, and other areas.

Second, per process optimization, what do we do to really improve and automate the process to make things safer, more efficient, and more timely? And third, per partnership—Edward-Elmhurst has access to everyone at Impact Advisors. And we want to create seamless demand management, so that Edward-Elmhurst can access our capabilities at any time.

Goldberg: Andy and I have talked about this. Lots of vendors and consulting firms will come to us and say, we’d like to be partners, or consider us partners. But the reality is that most relationships are not really partnerships. In a vendor relationship, they only want the upside. And we said, no, we want a true partnership, we’ll work with one another on both the ups and downs. So they have full access to us and information about our organization, and there’s that level of trust. And we actually did make an investment in Impact Advisors as an organization. And there are a couple of reasons for that: one, we’re always looking for opportunities for revenue; but more importantly, we have short attention spans in our world. And we felt it important to have skin in the game, so to speak. So the more we can make Impact Advisors more successful, the better we can do. And that’s why the joint review board is so important; we’re both incentivized to be successful.

So you’re interacting all the time now?

Goldberg: That’s exactly it. The Impact Advisors people are embedded in some of our committees, such as our innovation committee and our digital transformation group; they have access to our strategic plan; they’re interacting with all our senior executives; it’s a long-term view, where it’s not about when that next deal is going to be made; it’s not like that. We have full access to one another and are constantly going to look for opportunities. And Impact Advisors has dozens of leaders considered thought leaders in their niche of business, and we have access to all of them, and don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to access all of them.

Smith: We’ve almost become an adjunct management team for them. We’re walking the halls; we’ve got office space there. And I know it’s a bit of a trope, but we really are looking to create value—to help them become safer, more effective, more efficient, to help them grow; and to make sure we mutually benefit from any changes.

Are there any challenges involved in such an enmeshed relationship?

Goldberg: There are no significant ones; it’s just about how to find the work cadence, and what the long-term sustainable model will look like. It’s working really well now. The question will always be, do we have enough bandwidth to continue to support the partnership, and can we continue to feed that?

And we’re innovative on both sides; we seem to think alike. That’s one of the reasons it’s worked so well. And we are the highest-quality, lowest-price provider in the area. And it’s a competitive marketplace, and we always need to be better, and better than everyone else, and if we can get some help in that, that’s a great thing.

Smith: It’s been really smooth sailing, and everybody’s so excited about the potential. Three sets of challenges ahead: one will be mindshare, just making sure we don’t get mired in our day-to-day responsibilities. Second, innovation and change is very difficult. We’re jointly working together on an analytics program, and Edward-Elmhurst has built a large team and spent a lot of money on that promise, and a lot of that work is around agility and process improvement, not so much the technology. And third, we’re betting that some of these big moves will pay dividends, but it might take time. We have to trust one another.

Change management is involved in continuous process improvement, then, correct?

Smith: Yes, absolutely.

Goldberg: We talk a lot about healthcare transformation. The problem is, are we actually changing how we as the healthcare industry does things? The way the IT department works? We’re supposed to change healthcare, but have we changed ourselves? So we’re really trying to push the envelope: if HC is transforming, what do we need to do internally? We’ve also created a venture fund and are making investments in companies, just like other health systems. And as I talk to my colleagues nationwide, it’s easy to write a check for a piece of technology or a start-up, but it’s really hard to actually intake innovation. We talk about it, but aren’t as good at actually delivering. So we have to learn how to be good at innovation. How do we intake it and juggle it with other projects? Going beyond simply putting together a plan and investing in it.

How will the partnership help as your organization moves into value-based contracting in the next few years?

Goldberg: The reality is that we may need a CIO 3.0 at this point. CHIME has been talking about CIO 2.0 for at least ten years now. So maybe we need at least CIO 2.1. You’re right; it dovetails into that whole concept of transforming the transformers. We need that sense of curiosity, of constantly learning and inquisitiveness; it has to be embedded into the CIO role—to constantly be learning and thinking about how to do things differently. Andy sent me an article yesterday that I thought was super-fascinating, about innovation in another industry. So yes, we’re always tossing ideas at one another; and the folks at IA have a lot of different skill sets.

Smith: As the industry pivots to value-based care, healthcare organizations will need help moving through that transformation. Our role will be to help the folks at Edward-Elmhurst build the foundation for that, including the IT foundations for pop health, the digital front door, etc. And as Jon mentioned, they’ve got a venture arm, and our venture capital firm can connect with them on that level, too. And the nice thing about the venture capital firm is that—you know, we’ve got over 350 clients—one of our jobs is to make sure we have access to the right technologies, etc.; so we’ve got an ability to get things out to the market very rapidly.

What is next year going to look like?

Smith: We’ve got more value streams than I can count already identified. We initially identified 15-20 priorities, filtered them through a prioritization matrix, and are winnowing them down to five or six very major areas, and are going through that process now, to frame out what we’re going to tackle over the next several years. We’re hoping to get some direction early this summer and to move forward thereafter.

Goldberg: We have some big projects we’re working on, including ERP and analytics, we’re looking at digital and virtual health, and looking to break down the four walls of the health system as many are doing; it’s a very dynamic environment here; and as an organization that’s agile, we can pivot very quickly. So there are all sorts of things that we expect to go on over the next year or two.

Andy: We’re excited about it, not only in terms of the impact at EE, but hopefully more broadly. I’m hoping that within a year’s time, we can share some things.

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