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Health care’s role in improving the local economy: An interview with Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Howell Agee

Health Evolution | November 12, 2019

Health systems have a unique opportunity to invest in their communities beyond health care services.

In the Roanoke, Virginia area, for instance, Carilion Clinic has forged progressive partnerships to improve the region – with the goal of transforming the local economy and, in turn, making Carilion itself a better health care provider, CEO Nancy Howell Agee says.

Before becoming CEO of the nearly $2 billon not-for-profit system, Agee served as its COO in and played a key role in its transformation into a physician-led integrated system.

Health Evolution Editor-in-Chief Tom Sullivan spoke with Agee about the progress Carilion has made thus far, what’s next in the region, and her top priorities for the future.

Health Evolution: Carilion Clinic recently formed a partnership with Radford University and already had one with Virginia Tech. What’s the overarching goal in those?

Agee: The goal is to integrate higher level education with innovation and technology to improve the workforce. We have a relationship with Virginia Tech and just announced a partnership with Radford to double the number of nursing students. On one hand that enables our graduates to go all over and, on the other hand, it strengthens the workforce here in Virginia. Coupled with that is improving the economy. The stronger the economy is, the stronger the region is, the better we’ll be as a health care system.

Health Evolution: In terms of bolstering the region, what’s next?

Agee: We’re already transforming the economy and improving outcomes. We partnered with the city to create an innovation corridor. We just announced $1 billion investment to build a new psychiatric center, cardiovascular institute, new emergency department – we’re doing several regional projects, adding urgent care, specialties. We’re both leading and responding to what we think the health needs of the future will be.

Health Evolution: Speaking of the future, when you look out three to five years, what are your top priorities?

Agee: My three to four top priorities are continuing our quest to be one of the highest quality and safest hospitals in the world. That’s a continual journey to raise the bar on delivering a safe, highly reliable quality experience.

Something else I’m passionate about is access and affordability. As you probably know, Virginia was late to the party with Medicaid expansion, so we’ve been working on that.

Also, we’re using technology to improve access, such as telehealth writ large and telemedicine, mobile devices and wearables. And continuing our journey in innovation with AI and machine learning to transform care, education and workforce development.

Health Evolution: How is Carilion using AI for those purposes you just mentioned? 

Agee: We use PeraHealth in every one of our nursing stations, putting together information from charts, vital signs, to give nurses an alert that something is going wrong with a patient before they know it. We’re also using Jvion to augment caregiver knowledge. It has already helped us to reduce falls. We’re taking the data we have and interpreting it in new ways so it becomes a tool for caregivers.

Q: Now, taking a look back, since you’ve been with Carilion as CEO since 2011 and COO before that, what are you most proud of?

A: It’s two-fold. First is that we made a decision to migrate from a collection of hospitals to an integrated delivery system with physician leaders as a meaningful part. Second is the aforementioned partnership with Virginia Tech to create a research intensive medical school and a research institute attached to that. It started with zero federal funding.

If you look out from my office it was a brown field — and now it’s a vibrant area that changed the region.

Health Evolution: What advice would you give other CEOs out there considering either becoming an integrated system or striving to create an innovation corridor? 

Agee: Make your decision and have the courage to stand by it. Make sure the board is with you, and then communicate, communicate, communicate.

About the Author

Health Evolution, Staff Writer