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Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler on removing inefficiencies within health care

Gabriel Perna | November 5, 2019

Key Takeaway:
*Wheeler says preventative care is one of the most definitive ways to reduce costs.

*One of the areas that’s ripe for more effective preventive care is in mental health.

*Wheeler says vertical integration will help connect all areas of the care continuum.

Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler, MD doesn’t want to see an overcrowded waiting room in one of the Minneapolis, Minn.-based health system’s 13 hospitals.

Wheeler, who has been the CEO of Allina Health since 2015, told Health Evolution that too often the waiting rooms of these hospitals’ emergency department have a lot of people who don’t need to be there.

“Right now, in my hospital and health care system, we have probably 20 people or more waiting in an emergency room that aren’t appropriate for in-patient admission, that are sitting in a 10×10 room, sometimes for days. They’re waiting to see where they can be properly placed,” she said.

Wheeler estimated that 80% of the care Allina Health provides could be “done in other settings, in other ways, as close to home as possible, with some support.” She is a big advocate for preventive care and says that’s the most definitive way that the health care system will lower costs for patients. In terms of what can improve predictive care, she points to technology as a potential avenue.

“I also think that making sure that we try to do our best to predict and prevent things, as opposed to find them and fix them, especially in the most acute or chaotic setting, will also be a way to reduce it. That basically means, with things advancing in terms of predictive modeling, in terms of machine learning artificial intelligence, in terms of genomics, and things like that, that we can try to get ahead of these things.,” Wheeler said.

Looking at mental health

One of the areas that’s ripe for more preventive care is in mental health. Not only is mental health impacting a significant portion of the patient population (20% of all adults),  but many are increasingly turning to the ER to get care. While Wheeler noted that the stigma of mental health care is starting to go down, there are still efficiencies to be had within the system.

According to a government report, ER visits by patients with mental or substance use disorders increased about 44% from 2006 to 2014. Most research confirms that the emergency department is poorly equipped to handle these individuals’ needs for a variety of reasons.  Wheeler cites the example of preventing first episode psychosis as something that could improve mental health care and the overall system.

“If can move [this] upstream and prevent that from occurring, we reduce a ton of burdens on people, on individuals and their family who are suffering from some of these conditions, and we reduce a lot of cost that is being borne by the health care system,” she said.

Disruption, please

Speaking of removing inefficiencies within the system, Wheeler points to vertical integration as having potential to disrupt the industry. She says the new collaborative environment between payers, providers, life sciences, tech companies, and other types of organizations will help connect all areas of the care continuum.

“I actually think these disruptors, this vertical integration, I think that’s a good thing. [Anthem CEO] Gail Boudreaux said that Billie Jean King told her that, “Pressure is privilege.”

Those constraints are what have us do things in a different, fundamentally different way and we need it,” Wheeler said.

Watch more highlights from the full discussion in the below video.

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna