Trust the process and support the team. That’s been a mantra for Martin Bonick since he took over as CEO of Ardent Health Services in mid-August. With 30 hospitals in six states, Bonick has been trying to travel to as many markets as possible to meet team members and talk about his strategic priorities for the Nashville-based health system, but the pandemic has made that difficult. Bonick says the organization has benefited from sharing ideas across markets, and it has become more nimble while confronting the pandemic on several fronts. Bonick recently spoke with Modern Healthcare Managing Editor Matthew Weintock. The following is an edited transcript.
MH: This is a bit of a homecoming for you, right?
Bonick: That’s exactly correct. In 1997, I started with Hillcrest HealthCare system in Tulsa, Okla., and that was the beginning of my administrative career as an administrative resident. In 2004, we became part of the Ardent health system. I had the privilege of working with the company for a few years before my career progressed and moved on. To come back is a really special homecoming.
MH: What are some of your strategic priorities?
Bonick: Coming into it during a pandemic, this is not the way that you would have written your ideal entry into an organization, but it is the situation we’re all faced with. And I’m no different than anybody else in healthcare these days, in terms of the challenges we face. But coming in, one of the things that I expressed to our team was trying to establish a sense of calm. A motto that I had adopted early on was to respect the past, but embrace the future.
Ardent has a rich past and we’re going to build on the traditions and the culture that we have, (but) we need to realize that healthcare is changing and that we have to change and evolve with that in order to be successful and relevant and sustainable for the long term. And so that is something that I’ve tried to embody here in my first 90 days—respect the past but help everybody understand the need to embrace the future.
MH: Are there specific areas that you think need to be addressed?
Bonick: Absolutely. We are, first and foremost, a hospital company and that has been our roots and our history. But as we all know, healthcare is evolving and our ability to go where the patients want to be versus having them come to us is important. Patients and customers have choice these days, and we need to make sure that we’re accessible in a method and a manner which is convenient and accessible to them.
We have embraced digital technology and our digital front door, in addition to our emergency rooms and clinics. We’re looking at other outpatient services that we provide in the community to make sure that we are providing timely and relevant healthcare and accessible services for the patients where they need to be.
MH: The shift to outpatient has been going on for some time. How has the pandemic influenced that and what does it mean for your long-term strategy?
Bonick: All hospitals were faced with the sudden shutdown of elective surgeries and services. That certainly knocked everybody backward. I think a lot of plans went out the window and survivability became goal No. 1, which our company has done quite well at from that perspective. But as the newcomer in the organization, I’m trying to find a silver lining as a result of what’s happened. I think one of the bright spots in this has been our ability to incorporate telehealth more deliberately into our care services.
Healthcare has been known to be slow and bureaucratic at times, and it takes forever to get something moving sometimes. We were doing less than 1,000 telehealth visits a month across our company … it was not a deliberate part of how we were engaging our patient base. If you fast-forward, by April, a month into the pandemic, we were doing over 60,000 visits a month. We didn’t have time for a committee or time for the typical strategic planning and machinating that you would go through to launch something like that.
Tele-ICU is another (example). The strength of being part of a larger system and network is that our hospitals in New Jersey were at the front line when the pandemic first started. A lot of our other hospitals had capacity because of elective procedures being shut down or slowed down. We had team members that were able to travel to go and help our New Jersey hospitals. At the same time, we set up tele-ICU services where our specialists and intensivists in Tulsa, for example, were able to provide services to our hospitals in New Jersey. And as a result of the lessons that we had there, we were able to continue those things into our other operations. As the surge and the spread has migrated across the country, we’re in a better position today because we had the opportunity through trial and error to work through those and now incorporate those as best practices across our company.
MH: You’re certainly not going to be the last CEO to move into a new role during the pandemic. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the past two months?
Bonick: First, don’t try to disrupt the incident command structure that’s in place. Most hospitals have had to weather this storm at some level or capacity, and you have to trust your people and trust the process. As a new leader, one of my jobs is to question and to challenge: “Are we thinking through this with a fresh set of eyes and making sure that we’re doing it?” But also not to second-guess the good work that’s happening.
The best practices and the weekly calls that we have and the knowledge sharing … that’s not my job to question; it’s to support the team and to empower them to make sure they have the resources … as issues surface … that they can address those and competently execute on them and our people have the testing that they need, the protective equipment that they need, and the supporting resources and staffing help, when it becomes a problem or before it becomes a problem.
So it’s to trust the process, support the team and to be grateful. For me, getting out to the markets, while I wish I could have been to every hospital thus far, and I’ve gotten to a little over half of them, the pandemic has just slowed things down unavoidably.
But to be out there, to walk the halls, to just say, “Thank you,” to our team and acknowledge them for their efforts and continued support, again, as we don’t know when this is going to end, is extremely important and I think well-received. When the front line sees that our leaders are still engaged, supportive and willing to walk the walk with them, I think that makes a big difference.