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Quality, safety at crux of healthcare delivery for UHC's Irene Thompson


One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)


The University HealthSystem Consortium has a lot of ground to cover as a leading representative of academic medical centers, but it’s chosen to delve deep into matters of quality and safety under the direction of President and CEO Irene Thompson, who has been chosen as one of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare by Modern Healthcare.


“If you’re looking to improve a hospital,” she says, “needless to say, you need to get into the way healthcare is delivered.”


UHC’s Patient Safety Net, for example, is a real-time, Web-based reporting system that has long been a part of its offerings to its members. In 2012, however, UHC entered into a collaboration with Datix, a U.K.-based developer of patient safety technology solutions, to create “a broader suite of patient safety tools,” Thompson says.


West Virginia University Healthcare was the first member to begin using the new software, and Johns Hopkins followed suit. UHC is ready to roll out the product on a wider level to members of its alliance, and demand is great, Thompson says.


“The members who have been on our older platform have been very eager to transition onto this new one,” she adds. “They’re very excited.”


In fact, UHC’s Performance Improvement patient safety organization was among the first PSOs recognized by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).


“This is a natural outgrowth of what UHC is all about, which is performance improvement for the academic medical center,” Thompson says.


UHC also was named as a Hospital Engagement Network in an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. As part of HHS’ Partnership for Patients program, UHC has been working since late 2011 to increase safety and quality by taking aim at two benchmarks:


**To reduce hospital acquired infections by 40 percent by the end of 2013, and


**To reduce preventable hospital readmissions by 20 percent by the end of 2013.


“It’s going extremely well,” Thompson says of the work. “We’re seeing great results in terms of

change among our members so we’re very pleased to be part of it, and very excited. I think CMS is pleased, too about the results that we’re achieving. We have about 80 hospitals participating and many of our institutions have exceeded the end goal already.”


Thompson had been president and CEO of the University of Kansas Hospital Authority for 10 years before joining UHC in 2007. It was those experiences in the hospital setting, she says, that made her an advocate for safety.


“I saw firsthand how patients and families suffered loss—loss of independence, loss of function, loss of life,” she remembers. “As frightened and vulnerable patients entered our level I trauma center, I saw the trust they placed in our hospital to treat injuries from an automobile accident, a fire, or a violent act. Witnessing the profound impact that our focus on quality and safety had on patients and their loved ones made me determined to spearhead initiatives to provide the highest quality of care possible.”


When she moved from serving on UHC’s board to leading the organization, Thompson saw the potential that the alliance of non-profit academic medical centers could have.


“UHC has a proud tradition of providing outstanding membership value and leadership for academic medical centers. Yet unprecedented change in the health care industry required us to think more boldly about how to position the organization to best serve members’ needs in the future,” she says.


Yet, personally, the shift in culture between the two jobs was enormous. At Kansas, her schedule was packed, and doled out in 15-minute increments. “It was a very dynamic and complex job, and I loved doing it,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to be addressing in a day – it could be anything from a broken elevator to a fire in the operating room.”


As UHC’s very visible leader, Thompson spends a lot of time on the road, interacting with and visiting the CEOs of UHC’s member institutions. “It’s certainly an experience that’s unique in this field,” she says. “There aren’t that many national posts where you get the opportunity to work with so many outstanding people. And the fact that I had been one of their peers makes it much easier for them and for me because I understand what they’re dealing with.”


In Chicago, Thompson has worked hard to get others who are in a position to make a difference involved in the American Heart Association. She has met with healthcare leaders in the Chicago area to encourage their support of the Chicago Heart Ball, a major source of funding for research and programs. She also hosts benefit events in her home and is one of the charter members of the Go Red for Women program, which focuses on raising women’s awareness of the unique warning signs of heart disease in women.


Thompson also has paid attention to the well-being of her own team as well. For the 10th year in a row, UHC was named to the Honor Roll for the Center for Companies That Care. No other company has been so honored.


The center cited the community involvement of UHC employees as one reason for the honor – more than 90 percent engage in monthly service programs. Flexible and work-from-home scheduling also were mentioned as traits that UHC excelled in.


“UHC is very engaged in what the new workforce wants,” Thompson explained. “We have many opportunities for them to participate in community involvement, and our new offices are designed to encourage openness and create energy.”


But the hard work remains as Thompson says UHC has evolved from a quiet little association to a powerful industry alliance. She says healthcare reform remains a moving target.


“There is action in terms of people recognizing they need to deliver care in a more efficient way,” she says. “But when you look, for instance, at the insurers, there are very few contracts that would reflect accountable care or population health – their systems don’t allow them to account for it. So there is a lot of talk but, truthfully, not much action.”


And, under reform, Thompson says academic medical centers may have higher hurdles to clear than other providers.


“Among AMCs, the research and the academic side have relied upon the hospitals over the years to support some of their activities that are either not funded or insufficiently funded by other sources. As the revenue is reduced at academic medical centers, they seem to be taking a bigger hit in certain areas than other hospitals. It puts at risk the whole tripartite mission of the academic medical center.”

Tags: Healthcare, Modern Healthcare, patient safety, AHRQ, Blog, CEO, Hospital Engagement Network, Irene Thompson, leadership, UHC, academic medical centers, quality, Top 25 Women in Healthcare, University HealthSystem Consortium