CEOs reflect on 2020: ‘We have exponentially expanded what it means to transform’

The last year has laid bare the need and opportunities for reimagining the possible for diversity, equity, technology and resiliency.

Tom Sullivan and Gabriel Perna | December 16, 2020

This has been a year marked by a pandemic, civil unrest, rising unemployment and political turmoil alongside rapid medical, scientific and technological advancements previously unimaginable as recently as February 2020 — all of which, taken together, have both exposed frailties in society writ large and contributed to a clear sense of purpose to create a more accessible, cost-effective and equitable health care system for all.

“This period has accelerated the need to adapt and reimagine what is possible with and for the people we serve,” says Brian Pieninck, CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. “Our experiences in 2020 have exponentially expanded what it means to transform, while opening new possibilities, and affirming that we need to increasingly operate with a future-ready mindset.”

Health Evolution asked CEOs to share their takeaways from 2020 and found leaders in violent agreement with Pieninck about reimagining the possible, driving transformation, advancing equity and building health care into a more resilient system.

During the past 12 months, increasing diversity and striving to achieve health equity have become an important part of that transformative mindset. One of many examples: The Hospital for Special Surgery added Diversity and Gratitude to its core values of Excellence, Innovation, Integrity, Passion and Teamwork, according to HSS CEO Lou Shapiro.

“Highly talented and dedicated people have boundless capacity for ingenuity and resilience; purpose focuses that for impact, but also inspires humility,” Shapiro said. “The magic is that humility inspires gratitude and that, in turn, fuels purpose.”

We have a value-creation value-extraction problem. The people, resources and infrastructures that are meeting people where they are, in the messy realities of their lives, and actually supporting them through to better moments, are rarely ‘reimbursed’ commensurate with the value they are creating.

Alexandra Drane

Pieninck cited two critical takeaways to profoundly shape CEOs thinking and actions moving forward. “The urgent need to eliminate systemic disparities and achieve health equity for all, and the incredible importance of developing adaptability and resilience as essential attributes in people, organizations and systems.”

That was particularly true this year as the global health care supply chain experienced widespread disruption.

“Clearly, the pandemic aimed a bright light at the frailties of the ‘just in time’ supply chain processes that most providers, distributors and GPOs have refined over the years. It works … until it doesn’t and when it doesn’t it is a big deal,” says Barry Arbuckle, President and CEO, MemorialCare Health System 

Steve Barnett, President and CEO of McKenzie Health System said that 2020 illustrated precisely how fragile America’s rural safety net of hospitals is and it has signaled that the pandemic will likely cause more hospital and facility closures in 2021.

“We have learned at both national and state levels that waiving barriers to providers practicing at their full scope can be helpful and quality and safety were not compromised,” Barnett adds.

Arbuckle says that the speed at which providers scaled virtual care and telehealth was unprecedented in his 30-year career as a health care leader.

“It reinforces what is possible when we take an ‘all hands on deck’ approach with fewer distractions, when there is a clearly identified and irrefutable need, and when barriers such as regulation and reimbursement are removed or moderated,” Arbuckle says.  

Telehealth, virtual care and consumerism were underway long before COVID-19 came, of course, but their use increased beyond prior expectations.

“In 2020, we saw creativity take new form from surgical recovery to infectious disease to isolation comfort, to mental illness, and support for adolescence, to cancer recovery, and chemotherapy support,” says Danielle Russella, President of Strategic Partnership at Amwell. “In many instances, they included virtual care teams that consisted of more than just a provider or a doctor, they included nurses, nutritionists and specialists.”   

In so doing, 2020 also exposed the human stories of health care. Devastating losses of life, long-haulers living with the effects of COVID for months already, raging debates about personal accountability relative to masks in public, heroic work by clinicians, nurses, and unpaid caregivers.

Alexandra Drane, CEO and Co-Founder, Rebel Health and Archangels notes that 2020 has pulled into the spotlight the health care system’s transition to value-based care.

“We have a value-creation value-extraction problem. The people, resources and infrastructures that are meeting people where they are, in the messy realities of their lives, and actually supporting them through to better moments, are rarely ‘reimbursed’ commensurate with the value they are creating,” Drane says, adding that as the industry moves toward value-based payments, “what matters more than anything else is to care for others and to be cared for ourselves, to love and be loved. Productizing that notion, scaling it with authenticity, ‘capitalizing’ on love might feel uncomfortable, but it’s necessary in radically reframing how we allocate scarce resources for not just the ‘heart line’, but sustainable top and bottom line impact.”

Now, as the calendar year draws to a close, the complex circumstances of 2020 will continue into the future, as will the need for strong, adaptable and responsive leadership in the upper ranks for providers, payers and life sciences enterprises.  

“Leadership matters,” Barnett says. “Regardless of the leadership role you have, people will look to you for direction and at no time in recent history has it been more important than 2020.”  


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