Emerging Role of the Chief Population Health Officer

Emerging Role of the Chief Population Health Officer

By Dennis J. Kain, MHA, FACHE, former Senior Vice President (retired)

Why Hospital Systems Are Now Hiring a New Type of C-Suite Leader

The shift from a fee-for-service model to a focus on community wellness, increasingly known as population health, is re-defining healthcare as well as the competencies required of a successful leader. Organizations thriving in this new arena are migrating away from business as usual and demonstrating flexibility in all aspects of their operations. They are preserving the most cherished aspects of their existing culture – like the commitment to deliver compassionate patient care – while radically changing the way healthcare is delivered.

Many of our healthcare executive search clients are looking for a new type of C-suite leader who is at the forefront of this change. The chief population health officer, quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing C-suite positions, can be described with words like decisive, creative, innovative and brave. While experience and knowledge are still important, systems of all size are now seeking forward-looking individuals who can anticipate the requirements of this new day in healthcare. These leaders prioritize a culture of action and improvement; they look at the patient as a whole, not as a collection of episodic encounters.

They are asking questions that require a non-traditional way of thinking. “Why does this patient keep coming to the emergency department, and what can we do to address his situation before it becomes an emergency?” “How can our staff assure that people have the right medications, make and keep their wellness appointments, and have the support they need to recover faster?” In many cases, it is the new leader’s challenge to instill this new mindset, which is a huge contrast to hospital-centric care.

Perhaps surprising to the healthcare community, the emerging vanguard of population health leaders don’t necessarily come from the ranks of experienced administrators or clinicians. Having installed the latest cath lab is a beneficial experience, but is the potential leader focused on the patient and his holistic well-being? Is his focus on the patient and not the disease, understanding the prevalent “retail” mindset that turns a patient into a customer? Is the leader known for zeroing in on the improvement of the overall health of her community, regardless of the hospital census?

One of the more pressing aspects of successful population health is the need to provide a combination of both physical and behavioral health services to patients. Leaders who can bridge the gap between the hospital and the community – those with the skillset to forge solid partnerships with family physicians, pharmacists, social services, and behavioral clinics – will be invaluable.

For those looking to progress into the role of the chief population health officer or simply hoping to make a difference in this area, consider taking a few risks and let your passion drive you. The solutions to a healthier community are often right in front of us, our clients are learning. For example, Blessing Hospital in Quincy, Illinois, piloted a corporate wellness program for its employees and achieved $1.8 million in savings. They have also developed it to eight employer clinics, where it is geared to high-risk employees and the needs most common in the area.

CEO Maureen Kahn, RN, MHA, MSN, sees population health as a growing movement and believes Blessing Hospital must set the example it wants to replicate in the community. “We can all find ways to promote wellness in our communities,” she said. Her hospital statistics, including a decrease in readmissions and improved A1C levels for diabetics, are proof.