Using Technology to Move Forward from “Survival Mode”

July 24, 2023

As hospitals continue to face pressure from macro market trends like industry consolidation, disruption and consumerism, labor shortages and a shift in care settings, executives are seeking ways to rise from “survival mode” into “growth mode.” From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years that followed, hospitals in “survival mode” met impossibly thin margins and rising costs with new, agile efforts to leverage technology and automation. Today, still facing the financial and clinical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. healthcare providers are looking to one another for proven tactics to drive financial growth and help them climb out of “survival mode.”

These leaders came together for The HFMA Annual Conference. The HFMA Annual Conference is the premier event in healthcare finance, drawing more than 3,000 participants from across the nation and offering 4 strategy-focused general sessions, more than 70 educational sessions and 7 content tracks over 4 days. Leaders came together to attend peer-led sessions with topics spanning from accounting and finance to data analytics and business strategy, addressing how healthcare will address the cost effectiveness of health to lower the cost of care and optimize health outcomes and organizational performance.

In this blog, we’ll summarize the trends and topics that appeared in leaders’ presentations at HFMA Annual 2023. Whether shared during an executive panel, one of the many provider-led presentations or even in one-on-one conversations at Strata’s booth and sponsored coffee station, these themes and healthcare strategies are at the forefront of leaders’ minds to help bring their organizations out of “survival mode” – for good.

Seeing the Benefits of System Integration & Alignment

System integration through mergers and acquisitions continues to serve as a top concern for leaders at healthcare organizations across the country.

During an executive panel sponsored by AICPA, CFOs representing Steward Health Care, Cookeville Regional Medical Center and Montefiore Health System discussed some of the key issues facing their organizations. Colleen M. Blye, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Montefiore Medicine, shared that as the organization continues to grow, it is crucial to work toward “becoming one system.” To do so, Blye said, their organization is starting to think through service line performance and opportunities across the enterprise, their ambulatory footprint and how they fit into every aspect of home health.

In another executive panel, partners from McKinsey & Company, EY-Parthenon and Nixon Peabody shared their perspectives on how healthcare organizations continue to rely on mergers and acquisitions to stay competitive. Macroeconomic factors such as reimbursement and revenue shifts, as well as high labor costs, are pushing on the healthcare industry continue to lead many organizations to consider consolidation.

As leaders at these organizations must brace for potential system integration and hospital consolidation, they will need to rely on strong, well-defined processes and integrated technology platforms they can trust to manage the change.

Pushing Back on Payers

Across presentations and hallway conversations, the topic of payer relationships was common.

Whether through new technologies and automations like artificial intelligence, or by leveraging contract analytics to better understand and model expected reimbursement, healthcare leaders are re-focusing in on their organization’s revenue cycle strategy.

Tom Arnold, Chief Financial Officer at Piedmont Healthcare, shared that the organization is focused on how to “align the dots” between payer delays, supply chain and cost management. Peer-led presentations ranged from discussing new approaches to denials to focusing on value-based contracts to maximize revenue, but inevitably, technology continued to enter the conversation.

Theresa Mouton, Western Region Chief Financial Officer for Steward Health Care, shared that their organization got serious about “rightsizing the revenue-cost agreement.” Over the course of 2020 and 2021, to combat some of the challenges around revenue cycle, Mouton said Steward Health Care began to focus on educating physicians on the cost of care, to ensure there was a focus on both sides of the margin equation. Relying on their “competitive spirit” to continue to improve helped their organization build stronger relationships to drive down the cost of care.

Focusing on Service-Line Performance

Many leaders shared during the conference that focusing on service line performance helped their organization gain a competitive advantage by looking at entperise-wide performance, or else simply helped them better serve their community by focusing on the patient at the center of care.

According to Tommye Rena Wells, Chief Financial Officer at Cookeville Regional Medical Center, the years of the COVID-19 pandemic helped the organization “realize their strengths.” Evaluating their service lines helped them develop the right strategy to provide the best, highest quality care to their community. Using data and analytics, the organization was able to identify areas in which they could partner with other joint ventures (such as ambulatory and orthopedic partners) to provide patients with the best quality care they could.

The focus on service line analytics and performance continues to surface in conversations between healthcare leaders. This will likely remain a focus for leaders going into the next year.

Trusting New Technologies

Whether through the lens of trendiness or realized benefits, the HFMA Annual conference sparked the discussion of what new technologies healthcare could adopt. Presenters discussed the possibility of using AI for administrative tasks, denials management or clinical documentation to help give staff capacity to focus on more complex tasks. Others shared how they had used technology to appeal to certain patient groups, like developing an all-digital clinic focused on serving 18-25 year olds.

Despite the growing presence of words like “artificial intelligence” and “augmented reality” in the news, which require systemic changes to adopt, healthcare providers seem more focused on taking small, attainable steps toward improvement. In one session on the intersection of technology, innovation and human intelligence, Marija Cerelli, Senior Manager of Patient Financial Services at Stanford Health Care, shared that their organization has been relying on technology to supplement and support “the human factor” for the past 15 to 20 years.

Presenters often cited a continued need for trusted, accessible data to make more informed decisions, whether in managing payer contracts, addressing declining profitability or driving more cost-effective care. And, perhaps most importantly, the need for a true partnership with their vendor to help facilitate the change – and reduce the “fear of technology” staff may be carrying.

Committing to Addressing Cost Effectiveness

With such a focus on driving growth and moving away from “survival mode,” all presentations at HFMA Annual aimed to address the topic of cost-effective health. This is perhaps one of the most salient and significant topics in our industry today, with providers and vendors alike aiming to solve the multi-part puzzle. Executives from leading organizations shared their top strategies and tactics for going beyond “survival mode” to drive truly cost-effective health.

Investing in the Clinical Experience

According to one presentation, more than half of all hospitals are facing staffing shortages across not only clinical areas, but back office and operational staff as well. Tommye Rena Wells, Chief Financial Officer at Cookeville Regional Medical Center, shared the organization’s strategy: town halls and more flexible staffing for helping staff feel more seen.

Considering More Creative Staffing

Theresa Mouton, Western Region Chief Financial Officer for Steward Health Care, shared that the best approach to driving cost-effectiveness will require “creativity and ideation.” At their organization, this meant tactics like using paramedics and ER staff in the ED and being more thoughtful about where they can use roles other than nurses – to help their nursing staff focus on where they’re most needed. The flexibility of being able to float staff continued even after the height of the pandemic, when they first piloted it.

Thinking Differently About Care

Colleen M. Blye, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Montefiore Medicine, shared that healthcare providers need to start focusing inward and considering their local markets dynamics. “Healthcare is very, very local,” she shared with the audience. This reflects a need to think differently in the long term, in addition to short-term process and technology improvements.

This means understanding your community and structuring your operations to better align with its needs. One example? Blye shared a story about one heart attack patient who couldn’t return home to a city apartment without air-conditioning in the middle of the summer – so they bought him an air-conditioner. “Healthcare starts in our environment,” she said. “We care for the extremely vulnerable.”

Automating Workflows Wherever You Can

“Anything you can automate, you have to,” said Tom Arnold, Chief Financial Officer at Piedmont Healthcare. Arnold focused on ways to address standards across processes, including clearly defining expectations to help remote workers meet productivity goals, to remove any room for interpretation or guessing.

Many sessions focused on “automation” and streamlining processes using technology. Many presenters focused on leveraging automation to make the best use of data, enabling their organizations to drive physician engagement, understand and manage payer contracts and react to address labor shortages.

In Strata’s session with Texas Health Resources, Elizabeth Asturi, Chief Nursing Officer, and Luke Gorman, Vice President of System Financial Planning and Analysis and Decision Support, discussed the use of technology to help use real-time data in driving accountability and labor efficiency. Using these systems – and their data, in real time – helped their organization empower nursing leaders to make more informed staffing decisions and over time address some of the common challenges related to labor (high-cost agency labor, turnover, etc.)

Takeaways from Leading Healthcare Organizations

For the HFMA Annual Conference, speakers came from far and wide to share their stories and strategies with peers. Presentations represented organizations such as:

  • Advocate Aurora Health
  • Intermountain Healthcare
  • BayCare
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Keck Medicine of USC
  • Cape Cod Health
  • Piedmont Healthcare
  • Cookeville Regional Medical Center
  • Mount Sinai Health System
  • Texas Health Resources
  • Steward Health Care
  • UVA Medical Center
  • OSF HealthCare
  • NorthShore Edward-Elmhurst Health
  • UW Medicine
  • Mary Washington Healthcare
  • MedStar Health
  • Mass General Brigham
  • Children’s Minnesota
  • The University of Chicago Medical Center
  • Vanderbilt University Medical Center
  • Staten Island Performing Provider System

Healthcare leaders continue to focus on improving the cost effectiveness of care to ultimately benefit their patients and community. Large and small organizations with varying strategies are all leveraging new technologies and data, to improve the way they engage with their staff and community. Coming out of several years under the difficult constraints of the pandemic and shifting conditions not unusual in a dynamic environment, leaders are beginning to move away from the idea of “survival mode” and into a new era. Moving forward, these strategies will continue to help organizations grow.

The top takeaway? At Strata Decision Technology, we partner with over 2,000 hospitals representing more than 450 health systems to support their growth with our financial analytics and performance technologies and services. In our work with our clients as well as the presentations we heard at HFMA Annual, we have seen the same themes recurrent through the healthcare industry. As margin shortfalls continue, beyond looking at cost savings opportunities that may take weeks or months to garner results, health system finance leaders are re-evaluating their revenue strategies to improve short-term cash flow. This will continue to be crucial as healthcare leaders seek out the most powerful strategies to drive cost-effective healthcare and help keep their hospitals headed toward “growth mode.”

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