Trading Places

As a health care innovation leader, Beacon Health System CEO Phil Newbold is constantly searching for new ways to make the community-owned health system in northern Indiana more coordinated, efficient and cutting-edge to better meet the needs of patients and improve the health of the communities it serves.

“You can apply innovation principles and competencies to not just new products and services, but to any area of your operations,” explains Newbold.

Newbold considered what could be done to broaden the leadership capabilities of his top brass. He imagined something unheard of in the world of health care, a unique job assignment that for his two top leaders: Greg Losasso, president of Elkhart General Hospital, and Kreg Gruber, president of Memorial Hospital of South Bend. Newbold envisioned an opportunity to strengthen their ability to lead, while at the same time accomplishing systemwide goals.

Newbold approached Losasso and Gruber in late November 2013 about trading offices, calendars and responsibilities for two months. It meant working with a different staff, different processes and in a different community – leaving their comfort zones for 60 days and accepting a kind of change almost unseen at the executive level in the health care industry.

BECOMING ONE

A driving force behind the executive swap was unifying the cultures of Elkhart General and Memorial Hospital into a new Beacon way of doing things. After each operated independently for more than 100 years, the two hospitals (located 15 miles apart) affiliated in 2012, forming Beacon Health System. By forming the region’s only community-owned health system, the dynamic between the two hospitals needed to change, from competitors to partners.

Trading spots allowed Losasso and Gruber to sit in on a variety of meetings, observe the communication differences and meet employees and physicians face to face – all of which helped the leaders to better understand the similarities and differences between the two hospitals.

“What I discovered is that we are much more similar than we are different,” says Losasso.

Losasso and Gruber embraced the change of scenery and all the things that came with it, though they quickly realized the experiment was bigger than they imagined.

“I’m a strong believer that the best learning happens outside a person’s comfort zone. I know it has made them better leaders,” says Newbold.

Seeing the enormous successes resulting from the hospital president swap, Newbold has encouraged directors and managers at both hospitals to do the same.

“Not only can it strengthen our leadership,” says Newbold, “it enhances communication and creates operational efficiencies, and it can lead to higher quality care for our patients.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Newbold believes Elkhart General and Memorial Hospital can learn from each other, adopting best practices and standardizing operations where appropriate. Both presidents were able to observe the great work being done at the counterpart’s hospital.

“It boils down to finding what’s best at one hospital and bringing it to the other hospital,” says Gruber.

“It was a tremendous opportunity for us both to learn firsthand on a day-to-day basis about the other hospital – to observe successful practices and programs that can be replicated at our own hospital,” adds Losasso.

As a result of the Trading Places experience, there have been considerable tangible improvements – most notably implementing consistent patient-care experiences, standardizing processes and securing cost savings through leveraging resources.

To achieve greater unity and to align communication efforts, leadership developed more transparent, systemwide platforms for disseminating information, including a single associate newsletter and leadership conferences for directors and managers. At the same time, leaders have been sensitive to understanding and embracing some long-standing cultural features unique to the two hospitals. As a result, developing a singular culture has been instituted where it has made sense.