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Post COVID, Ascension is all in on ASCs, virtual care and agile working environments

Gabriel Perna | April 7, 2021

 For 26 years, Eduardo Conrado was one of the strategic minds at Motorola helping the mobile device company grow into a trusted manufacturer for first responders.  

Conrado says that experience has helped him in health care as the chief strategy and innovation officer at Ascension, the large $25 billion, Catholic health system based in the Midwest. He worked at Motorola to help first responders deal with high-stress situations by delivering the information they need from devices in a way that wouldn’t cause harm. It’s not unlike what he’s been trying to do as Ascension’s chief strategy and innovation officer, in particular as the health system has dealt with the horrible COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.  

“There’s a parallel between the two sides. You’re looking at insights. Simplification of information in high-stress situations. Making the digital solutions as user friendly as possible,” Conrado says. “When I came over and we started building out the digital team, a lot of people from tech came over. A lot of technologists see the mission in health care and the impact that tech can have on people, and it’s attractive to them.”  

Conrado recently spoke to Health Evolution about how the health system is shifting its strategic priorities in response to COVID-19, why Ascension is interested in doubling its footprint in the ambulatory surgery center (ASCs) space, lessons he is using from the tech world and more.  
 

How have Ascension’s strategic priorities shifted since COVID-19 hit? 

The crisis served as a catalyst for accelerating some of our strategies. The use of virtual care. Pre-COVID, it was there but it was not used to scale. Because of the crisis, pretty much every physician was using virtual care. And this acceleration had a bunch of knockdown effects. For instance, we have an acceleration of remote patient monitoring and the blending of digital and clinical components. 

And patient preferences are changing. Patients have started to prefer digital interactions vs. physical ones. If I’m going to schedule an appointment and go through the registration process, how can you make that digital in nature? Other industries have done it. If you think about the airline industry, I’m not sure how many people walk up to the checkin desk anymore vs. doing everything at homeI think you’re going to see those service orientations in health care 

There’s a growth in preference for athome care. People are saying, “I’ll see the doctor, but I’ll do it at home.” That’s been the catalyst for us to re-look at our portfolio in terms of systems of care, both from the ambulatory, acute, post-acute and home sidesThe integration of those pieces and the data foundation underneath it all enables the patient to flow through different environments. 

Why is Ascension interested in doubling its ASC footprint? 

We have a large footprint on the acute side. If you’re managing the total cost of care for the general population, surgery makes up 50-60 percent of that cost. What we’re looking at is over the next five years, there will be a shift from the acute side into the ambulatory side. In order for us to meet that demand, we need a larger ambulatory presence.  

There is also some patient preference depending on the surgery they are going to have. We decided last year that we were going to put a special focus on ASCs. We created a strategic business unit for ASCs so we can aggregate and focus on a standard platform, technology and accelerate growth in that area. We have a VP and a team that is dedicated for that platform. We ended up shifting capital to that team so they could accelerate growth. We’re still growing organically, but we’re very active on the acquisition front. It’s a mix building our own where we have geographic coverage and growing through acquisitions.  

How do ASCs align with Ascension’s goals around virtual care and alternative payment models? 

When you think about virtual care, it starts on the front end with the physician enterprise. You might have a face-to-face encounter with your doctor and then the follow up is virtualIf you need surgery, you might go through an ASC. After the surgery, you’re using remote patient monitoring so the doctor can track outcomesWhen you look at the continuum of carevirtual and remote play a big part of it. You may be doing recovery or PT at home. When the doctor might be tracking patient reported outcomesthat’s another flavor of remote patient monitoring. You’re going to see all this as part of the continuum of care.  

Read more: As investments into ASCs soar, health care leaders must navigate a new landscape 

What challenges come with expanding ASC operations? 

Part of it is creating a standard platform that we can replicate. Standardizing processes, the tech, the patient experience. That’s extremely important. The challenge is how fast we can go on the implementation sideThat’s something we’re currently gauging. You have the pressure of going faster vs. the ability of the team to implement properly. We’re trying to balance that. 

As we come out of the recovery phase, what investments do we have to put into place? We’re looking at our portfolio. Our processes of care. How does our clinical delivery model evolve?

Eduardo Conrado, chief strategy and innovation officer of Ascension

You came to Ascension from Motorola, what can health care learn from that industry about digital consumerism and engagement? 

We’re putting a huge emphasis on patient experience. It starts with capabilities we’ve borrowed from the tech world. We are engaged with human-centered research. We have teams and researchers who specifically look at people’s lives. How do they interact with health care? What are the friction points? Based on those findings, you get the design thinking approach. You’ve got designers thinking how do you create the optimal patient experience? This happens even before technology is involved. Between the design teams and the research teams, it gives us a good overview on how to create an optimized patient experience.  

From there, you can go in and design physical assets, digital components, workflows and create something unique. That’s what we do at Ascension. We have a team of researchers and designers who work on the care journey. They team up with technology, clinical and operations teams on how to create something unique and differentiated. I think the service industrythe restaurant industry, the airline industry—they’ve gone and cracked the code. We’re in the early days in health care on creating that kind of experience.  

How do you keep the momentum going with virtual care and digital health?  

When you have a crisis, a few things happen. Teams tend to get closer together. They are working across functional lines. You learn to work in an agile environment. We’ve done that in technology for a while, but you’re seeing it with non-technology teams. You’re iterating on top of a problem, and you’re coming up with solutions and small building blocks. You don’t have to wait a year to unveil something. You’re just making improvements as you go along. The teams are constantly engaged.  

I don’t think we’ll lose that momentum. That way of working is here to stay. That will accelerate changes across the board. Not just with the patient experience, but how we approach problem solving in the health care continuum. That’s exciting. It’s a different way of working. You’ve got small teams that are empowered to implement innovations and have an impact. Teams working in an agile environment have the ability to make incremental changes and it’s changing how we approach health care.  

What’s your hope for how Ascension emerges from the pandemic going forward? 

We’re coming out with good momentum on what we want to do in the future. We looked at the pandemic in three different phases. It was crisis management in the beginning—how do you set up teams to deal with surge and volumes? What processes and care models do you need to put in place to deal with that? As we’ve come through the pandemic, it was the recovery phase. What have you learned? Volumes are coming back up. Patients are going back to the doctor’s office. During the recovery phase, you’re looking at what’s changed.   

Ascension is in the third phase, where we’re looking long term at our strategic planAs we come out of the recovery phase, what investments do we have to put into place? We’re looking at our portfolio. Our processes of care. How does our clinical delivery model evolve? What assets do we have to put into place, both on the physical and virtual component? What technology do we have to deploy long term? Our goal is to create a more integrated care delivery system that focuses on population health, ultimately caring for underserved populations. When you put all the assets into place, with our strategic plan, we can get there. The pandemic served to accelerate the planning process and put the structure into place to make it a reality.  

Coming out of the pandemic, what’s your advice to fellow health care leaders? 

For [health care leaders] in the middle of crisis, there are two things to focus onyour associates and patients. When you take that lens, going back to that human-centered approach I was talking about earlier, it puts both the caregiver and the patient at the frontYou’re designing care models and putting new tech in place with the idea of making life easier for caregivers and providing better care for patients. It starts with having that in mind.   

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