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Getting health care right

Straight from the CEO: Strength in Shared Purpose

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David Holmberg, president and CEO, Highmark Health

My father served in World War II. I have thought a lot about that period of American history during the past year. From rationing and victory gardens to Rosie the Riveter and war bonds, everybody was pitching in and sacrificing for the greater good. The pandemic is the first time since then that so many people have been asked to make sacrifices simultaneously, while experiencing the loss of hundreds and even thousands of fellow Americans day after day.

It's easy to become discouraged, disillusioned, or just plain weary with everything we’re going through. Twists and turns and tough times remain, but we can get to a better future sooner if we get vaccinated when it’s our turn, and continue observing precautions like masking, handwashing, and social distancing. These small but meaningful sacrifices are also ways to recognize and honor the remarkable efforts of care providers, and the terrible hardships and losses that many have experienced. Not everyone is on the front lines — but everyone can do something to help.

Stepping up to meet the challenges — together

My belief is that people are generally at their best when working together to solve problems. When people share a common cause, they bring out the best in each other, creating greater strength and resiliency than they might have on their own.

We work very hard on our culture as an organization. Our common cause is caring about people and wanting to fix the problems that impact their health and prevent them from being their best. That’s driven extraordinary efforts to take care of our patients, members, customers, and communities during the pandemic. It’s also driving our Living Health strategy — which is our promise to fix some of the problems and frustrations in U.S. health care.

You see that mindset when anything is needed in our organization, or our communities. No one has to ask twice — our people show up. For example, when it became apparent that there would be a nationwide shortage of nurses, clinicians and medical staff as COVID-19 hospitalizations began surging last fall, we put out a call for qualified people to take on shifts in our hospitals. The tremendous outpouring of volunteers has helped us mitigate the shortages and impacts seen in many other places.

Another example of a shared purpose in action is the work Dr. Don Whiting did pulling together chief medical officers from health systems across southwestern Pennsylvania. This wasn’t mandated; this was Dr. Whiting and his colleagues focusing on the shared purpose of protecting our region during the pandemic. They saw that, united, working together and sharing ideas and coordinating resources, we would all be better able to overcome challenges and care for those we serve.

There have been many examples like that during these difficult times. So, while I can’t predict or control everything that will happen in the months ahead, I am confident that people will continue to step up because they know it's important, and because they want to do the right thing to help others. Similarly, we’re a nation of can-do people. When we have a shared purpose and act decisively, we can overcome big, tough, complicated problems. We just need to get back to that focus on making things better, and doing what we can, rather than sitting on the sidelines and blaming others.

Strong organizations look forward

While COVID-19 has been everybody’s number one priority, and will remain so, strong organizations must also constantly look forward and build for the future.

An experience from late last year illustrates why that “work of the future” is important. Two patients were brought in to AHN’s Jefferson Hospital in significant distress from COVID-19. These were the kind of patients who, in the spring, might not have made it. The good news is that they are both fine. That’s a tribute to all we've learned, the clinical protocols developed, and the dedication of not only the doctors and nurses, but also the environmental services people and support staff who are all doing their part to improve the chances for good outcomes.

Here are two more factors that helped. Several years ago we invested more than $1 billion in the region’s care delivery capabilities. Because of that, those patients arrived at an upgraded, state-of-the-art emergency department. In 2019, we began a “virtual ICU” partnership with Mercy Virtual, which has helped extend clinical capacities at community hospitals like Jefferson. We didn’t know we’d be dealing with a pandemic when we made those decisions, but by taking decisive action to build for the future, we ended up in a stronger position to help those patients and many others.

Without knowing what 2021 or 2022 may bring, I know we must continue advancing our long-term goals to be ready. Despite the pandemic, we accomplished quite a bit in that respect last year. We continued to expand care capabilities, including opening new neighborhood hospitals and a new cancer treatment and research facility. A pending affiliation with HealthNow will expand our reach into western New York, add close to a million health plan members, and scale up the impact of big ideas and investments like our Living Health Dynamic Platform. While doing all that and more, we maintained the financial discipline and fiscal strength that allows us to provide stability and support to our customers and communities even in a tumultuous period like the past year.

Addressing racial inequality, in health outcomes and in career opportunities, is also part of building a better future. The easy thing is to make big bold statements. The hard work is figuring out the root causes of disparities and what actions will really make an impact, and then living up to a commitment to continuously do better. With the help of Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, AHN’s first chief clinical diversity, equity & inclusion officer, we believe we can become a national leader in reducing health care disparities. As part of that, we are developing a program to provide financial support to help people of color get their medical degrees. In return, those doctors will practice in our communities and give more people the option to choose a doctor who matches their race or ethnicity, which can help improve health outcomes.

The shared purpose behind Living Health

In December, we announced a six-year agreement with Google Cloud to help us develop the innovative, highly personalized technology platform that will make our Living Health model unlike anything done before in our industry. You can learn more by reading this article from Karen Hanlon and Dr. Tony Farah, visiting the new Living Health website, and watching these Living Health videos.

Living Health is another good example of uniting around a shared purpose, and committing ourselves to actively making things better instead of being resigned to how things are. If you look at what Highmark Health has done over the past few years, it is consistently about challenging traditional models and assumptions of how health insurers and provider systems operate. Living Health is about taking the next step and building a new model. The shared purpose for everyone involved is to focus relentlessly on what is best for the individual and their clinician. We believe that by solving their problems, and eliminating their frustrations and stress, we will also create a model that gets better health outcomes, and reduces the waste and extra cost that make U.S. health care so unsustainable.

If you think about the best customer experiences you’ve had, they probably made you feel like people cared about you and listened to you, and everything revolved around you and was smartly designed to help you get what you want. With Living Health, we want to make every health experience remarkable in those same ways. The technology for our model, the Living Health Dynamic Platform, will do for your health what Amazon and similar platforms do for you as a consumer: use the data you provide to understand what's important to you and what your preferences are, and then empower you with personalized information, tools, and support to give you choices that fit your wants and needs.

That issue of choice is key. Right now, when people interact with the health care system, it is often due to a chronic condition or acute issue that hasn’t left much room for choice. Living Health will be a proactive, health-focused approach. Customized products, apps and devices, services, and interactions with your clinician and health team, will be about giving you more choices, and better quality of life, day to day, instead of just waiting to treat things that go wrong.

There is much work ahead to make Living Health a reality. I believe that work will succeed, for the same reasons I remain confident that we will not waver in helping customers and communities through the pandemic. I am surrounded by people who know that we have to make a difference, who understand how much is at stake, and who step up to make sacrifices and do what’s right for the greater good. That kind of clear purpose, and focus on what each of us can contribute, can go a long way toward helping us overcome our broader challenges as a society as well.

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A national blended health organization, Highmark Health and our diversified portfolio of businesses employ more than 35,000 talented people who proudly serve millions of Americans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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