Changing the Industry: An Interview with Marty Bonick, CEO of Ardent Health Services

“HEALTH CARE INDUSTRY, HEAL THYSELF”

With today’s consumers accustomed to having convenience and choice in all aspects of daily life, healthcare has become an industry ripe for disruption.

“Historically, there’s been an accepted mentality amongst health care providers that ‘this is the way it’s been always done,’” says Marty Bonick, President and CEO of Ardent Health Services, a leading provider of health care in communities across the country through its 200 sites of care, including 30 hospitals. “The reality is that consumer expectations are rapidly evolving, and our industry must do more in order to keep up.”

Bonick’s own perceptions were suddenly reframed in the aftermath of a bicycle accident in September 2021 — an event he credits as an opportunity to navigate the health care industry as a patient. Bonick sought care in the Nashville area where he lives. Though Music City is outside of Ardent’s network of hospitals and care sites, he says his experience translates across the industry.

“I’m grateful for the caregivers who were there to take care of me, and the nurses and the doctors on the frontline. Despite managing COVID-19 at the peak of the Delta variant surge, they were always there for me,” he says. “But when I step back now and look at the journey of what I had to go through more critically, it’s the lack of process and technology that really is the challenge. That’s the major opportunity for Ardent to do things differently.”

As consumers have grown accustomed to instant gratification and digital connections in all other aspects of their lives, they’re seeking the same convenience in health care.

“That’s why urgent care has become so popular, along with telehealth and other types of vehicles,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve got a cold or you need to see your primary care doctor, and they say, ‘Well, I can schedule you in two weeks.’ But as the patient, I’m calling you today, not for something two weeks from now. We have to do better.”

Bonick says this disconnect between the care provided and the experience of accessing that care is an opportunity to improve.

“Our caregivers are great at taking care of patients, but from an administrative standpoint, how are we making it easier for them to do their jobs? How do we make it easier for patients to interact with us and provide a better experience at the end of the day?”

BACKSTORY

Bonick’s mother was a nurse, and his father worked in construction. He established a strong work ethic young while helping his dad with construction jobs on weekends and in the summer. Inspired by his mother’s career in health care, Bonick set his sights on becoming a doctor. In college, he worked at a local hospital in the evening and on weekends where he eventually earned his EMT license to gain valuable hands-on experience.

“But when medical school wasn’t panning out, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he remembers. 

His senior year in college became a pivotal point in the path toward Bonick’s future career. 

“I was lucky to find a mentor who eventually asked me if I had ever thought about being a hospital administrator. I was naïve at that point; I thought doctors ran hospitals. I didn’t realize that there were administrators who ran day-to-day operations.”

Bonick discovered a top-10 health care administration program at Washington University in St. Louis. Each year, the CEO of the local Barnes Jewish Hospital hired a small number of students to work as overnight administrators, and Bonick was selected for one of those positions.

“I went from wearing scrubs to suits – 5pm to 7am,” Bonick says. “What I realized is that, while doctors help patients one person at a time, administrators can also impact a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”

ARDENT CARES ABOUT PEOPLE

Bonick cares about making an impact and leading an organization centered on authentic compassion toward people – patients, their families and team members. Many aspects of Ardent’s culture revolves around recognition and communication. Internal meetings begin with a “Connect to Purpose” story, during which patient experiences are recounted and celebrated. 

“Connecting back to our purpose is always first and foremost in our minds,” Bonick says. With 25,000 employees across six states, he strives to connect with team members in a meaningful way.

“Every week, I send a note from my vantage point about what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in our business, and how we’re responding to the events around us,” he says. 

Bonick’s openness means a lot to team members. Recognizing the organization’s diverse philosophical backgrounds, experiences and beliefs, he welcomes and encourages feedback. 

“I answer every one of the messages I receive from our team members. With a very diverse organization and team, we are not always going to agree on every subject, but people need to have the opportunity to (a) be truly listened to and (b) know that their voices matter – especially now.”

Bonick joined Ardent during a time of heightened social unrest and five months into the pandemic. “I give all the credit to our team. Our organization got thrust into the deep end, right from day one of the pandemic,” he says.  

“Every time we learned something about COVID-19 — because it was constantly changing, and to a certain extent still is — we kept everyone updated and cascaded our macro-level view of the crisis. When COVID-19 spread across the country, the learnings that we had accumulated from early hotspots were shared throughout the organization.”

The all hands-on deck effort has been sustained, Bonick says, by the resiliency of the team – those who care for patients directly and others who are supporting those who do. He takes every opportunity to thank caregivers while visiting the company’s hospitals across the country.

“They are seeing the death and devastation every day, including some of our own caregivers. But nevertheless, they keep getting up – and rising to the challenge.”

Unlike mass casualty events or natural disasters, which are typically limited to a few hours or days, COVID-19 has lingered for two years. Despite this once-in-a-generation challenge, Bonick says that there’s a place at Ardent for people who want to be part of an organization with a purpose.

“If you’re not suited to being on the frontline, there’s an extensive team of people supporting our caregivers and they are integral to making the organization work — from insurance verification and patient registration, to quality assurance, data analytics, revenue cycle, and IT systems that help all of our locations function.”

“We are creating an environment in which anybody can thrive, “he continues, “as long as they’re open-minded and want to continue learning and growing. Our industry needs fresh perspectives focused on putting our patients at the center of everything. It is time to think big and dare to think differently.”