Becoming A New CEO of a Health System during a Pandemic

On August 17, 2020, I faced what was arguably the greatest challenge of my career. Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I took the helm of Ardent Health Services as only the second president and CEO in the company’s 19-year history. I was largely unknown to the company’s 26,000 employees spread across the country in six states. Our hospitals and clinics were in the thick of caring for COVID-19 patients onsite and virtually. How do you step in and lead a healthcare company in the middle of an unprecedented national health crisis? Here is what I have learned.

Trust the Process

As I came on the scene, Ardent’s herculean efforts were already underway. I knew it would be important to trust the process as I ramped up my understanding of how the company was managing operations in this unpredictable time.

Ardent had responded quickly to their first COVID case, establishing both local and corporate incident command centers. Through a cadence of regular calls with hospital executives and clinical leaders, they shared critical metrics, including counts of COVID-positive inpatients, persons under investigation, staff in quarantine and available ventilators. In the spirit of complete transparency, these metrics, along with important updates on protocol changes, were shared throughout the company.

Hospital and clinic operations were turning on a dime to prepare for the expected influx of COVID cases while keeping non-COVID patients safe. Supply chain leaders were busy ensuring that an adequate stock of personal protective equipment was on hand, as national vendors were running short.

Take Care of People

Though I was new to most Ardent employees, I was a familiar face to a number of people at Hillcrest HealthCare System in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I had worked earlier in my career. It was a pleasure to reconnect with them, as I introduced myself to leaders across the company. People are what make an organization, and I look forward getting to know team members across Ardent as I continue onsite visits, walking the halls of our hospitals and clinics.

Whether patient-facing or behind the scenes, clinical and non-clinical staff throughout the company have sacrificed, faced fears, and stretched beyond their job duties for far longer than anyone could have foreseen. Supporting them is a priority. Our hospitals have established safe spaces where employees can show their emotions as they face this crisis that affects them both at work and at home. Leaders are rounding daily with a purpose, often injecting small moments of fun, from snacks to activities. As a company, we are emphasizing the importance of self-care, offering employee wellness and assistance services and mindfulness apps.

More than ever before, our staff has demonstrated their resiliency and dedication to our purpose of caring for people under extraordinary circumstances. I, too, am fully committed to taking care of our people, and consider this my top priority and responsibility. This philosophy will be critical to our success going forward.

Remember that Zero to 60 is Possible

When faced with few alternatives, people and organizations manage to do what they once viewed as too difficult or even impossible. Clinical staff innovated ways of providing excellent care to critical COVID-19 patients while minimizing the risk of exposure. Engineers converted medical surgical rooms to ICU rooms with negative air pressure. Emergency departments set up tents to perform safe and isolated triage of respiratory patients.

Our federal government is another case in point. COVID-19 revealed the need to provide telehealth services to patients in the safety of their homes. The government responded by approving reimbursement for these visits and insurance companies soon followed suit. Prior to March 2020, Ardent clinics saw virtually no telehealth patients. Two months into the pandemic, our clinics had cared for more than 60,000 patients virtually, accounting for as much as 77 percent of all visits in one of our markets in April.

Though Ardent is a large organization with an average of 2.7 million provider encounters with patients a day, we have demonstrated that we can be nimble as we learn to deliver care in new ways. Our openness to new technology will help us as we welcome patients to our digital front door, applying artificial intelligence (AI) and exploring enhanced connectivity through Epic, our enterprise-wide electronic medical record platform. It also fosters greater collaboration, sharing best practices for the greater good of our patients and our company.

While no one enjoys operating in an environment lacking consistency or predictability, learning what you can accomplish under pressure builds better and faster teams. Knowing why you need to do it brings teams closer together with a common purpose that fuels momentum despite obstacles or setbacks.

Make Uncomfortable Conversations Comfortable

How we view change matters. My philosophy is to embrace it. If we see change as something happening for us and not to us, we are more likely to respond positively.

When it comes to change, I believe in making uncomfortable conversations comfortable. To ensure we are putting our company in the best position, both now and for future growth, I believe in being tough on the issue but not on the person. It is human nature to be invested in past decisions or plans. When we take time to step back and apply today’s unique conditions objectively, however, the best decisions may require embarking on a new route. This is essential to remaining nimble and responsive.

Look at the World in a Post-COVID Light

Our physicians, respiratory therapists, nurses, engineers and leadership teams in the markets have been in the trenches during this war against COVID-19. As we set aside some things to address the crisis, we have rightfully maintained our focus on improving our patients’ experience in our hospitals and clinics. We have also continued to care for our employees and their satisfaction and wellbeing at work. All of this must continue despite COVID-19.

When states issued stay-at-home orders, our hospitals remained open. Our staff continued to carry out their duties. In that same spirit, our organization cannot wait until the pandemic is over to make strategic decisions. Healthcare is too important. We must seize every opportunity to embrace our patients’ needs and innovate to serve them better tomorrow.

My goal in this new role is to stay true to our purpose, continuing to embrace change and accept big challenges. With hard work, dedication, creativity and the support of a great team, Ardent will be an even stronger organization.

Ardent Health Services

Ardent Health Services invests in quality health care. In people, technology, facilities and communities, Ardent makes considerable investments – producing high quality care and extraordinary results.

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