Friday, May 10, 2013

Clouded "Visionary" Leadership - Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's EPIC "Business Cycle Disruptions"

A typical excuse for the multi-million dollar compensation now enjoyed by many leaders of health care organizations is these leaders' supposed brilliance.

For example, in 2011 we noted  that the total compensation of Dr John McConnell, the CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, a non-profit teaching hospital, rose from over $700,000 in 2008-2009 to over $1.6 million in 2009-2010.  Other top executives in the system made nearly one million a piece.  An official statement from the hospital system claimed that this level of compensation was needed to "retain skilled executives and visionary leaders for the medical center."  Furthermore, in 2012 we noted that in 2010-2011 Dr McConnell's compensation had grown to nearly $2.5 million, while other top executives received from over $900,000 to over $1.1 million. 

Recent events, however, suggest that the "visionaries" may need new glasses.

An EPIC Challenge

Last month, the Winston-Salem Journal reported that Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is facing some unexpected fiscal challenges, especially from its new electronic health record (EHR):

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s struggles to implement its Epic electronic records system contributed to additional costs and lost revenue during the first half of its fiscal year 2012-13.

The center provided the information in a second-quarter financial report submitted to bond agencies in which it also reported a $49.6 million operational loss and a gain of $7.4 million in overall excess revenue.

That is interesting.  There have been many criticisms of EHRs, particularly for how they may impede, rather than help health professionals, and more importantly for their risks of causing adverse effects affecting patients, in the absence of clear data from controlled clinical trials that they provide benefits that outweigh their potential harms to patients.  Some of these problems may stem from design and implementation that prioritizes benefits to managers and institutional finances over effects on patients and doctors.  As InformaticsMD noted, even the AMA now admits that

 As the healthcare industry moves to EHRs, the medical record has essentially been reduced to a tool for billing, compliance, and litigation that also has a sustained negative impact on doctors' productivity, according to Steven J. Stack, MD, chair of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.

Yet in this case, a well known commercial EHR did not even help out the hospital system's finances.


Wake Forest Baptist said it spent as of Dec. 31 about $13.3 million directly on the Epic electronic-record system, which went live in September.


 The center also cited $8 million in 'other Epic-related implementation expense' that it listed among 'business-cycle disruptions (that) have had a greater-than-anticipated impact on volumes and productivity.' Also listed was $26.6 million in lost margin 'due to interim volume disruptions during initial go-live and post go-live optimization.'

Note that InformaticsMD frequently criticizes proponents of commercial health care information technology for glossing over potentially bad effects on patients and practice with management-speak (e.g., as "glitches," or "hiccups.").  Here is a great example of an attempt to gloss over bad effects on finance with management-speak.

Bond Downgrades and Furloughs, Wage Reductions, Hiring Freezes, Retirement Contribution Reductions, and Bonus Eliminations

As a consequence,

 On March 20, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the center’s long-term debt rating below the lowest level of high-grade investment quality. The downgrade to A1 from Aa3 affects $597.2 million of rated debt outstanding.

The rationale was clear,

 Moody’s said the A1 rating 'reflects the unexpected decline in financial performance through the first half of fiscal 2013, largely due to the installation of a new information technology platform (Epic), encompassing 95 percent of all revenue components of the enterprise.'
You know when you see bond downgrade by rating agencies that  financial matters are really going badly.  

By May, 2013, month, the problems were evidently still not solved, and the hospital was forced to take more drastic measures.  As again reported by Richard Carver writing for the Winston-Salem Journal,

The workforce at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is paying a paycheck price to make up for the financial shortcomings to date of its Epic electronic records system.

The center said in a statement Thursday it has begun another round of cost-cutting measures that will last through at least June 30, the end of its 2012-13 fiscal year.

The measures include attempts at volunteer employee furloughs and hour-and-wage reductions, a hiring freeze, a reduction in employer retirement contributions, and elimination of executive incentive bonuses for 2013.

Management made clear that the cuts were in response to the Epic debacle,

Even though management said Thursday the center is making progress with fixing the Epic revenue issues, it acknowledged it 'will not meet projected financial targets for the current fiscal year.'

'Wake Forest Baptist has identified immediate multimillion-dollar savings with a series of short-term measures that impact personnel,' according to the statement.

To give credit where it is due, at least the cuts will apparently not affect line clinical employees:

 Those primarily affected by the volunteer furloughs and hour-and-wage reduction requests are nonclinical full-time employees, including administrative staff. They can volunteer to work as few as 30 hours a week with no loss of health or dental benefits for May and June. In the memo, management said employees can volunteer to continue the reduced-hour work week into fiscal year 2013-14.

However, it seems likely that they will affect many employees, including some proportion who likely had not responsibility for the problems with Epic.

When in Doubt, Lobby the Government

What the hospital system did not seem to be cutting was lobbying and public relations.  Perhaps this was a response to its unexpected inability to manage its own commercial health care information technology?  What bad management can lose, maybe government can supplant.  Once again Richard Carver had the story for the Journal:

Stung by a series of unusual setbacks at the General Assembly, the North Carolina hospital industry is launching a public relations campaign aimed, in part, at protecting revenues and staving off competition from lower cost surgery centers.

In a social media initiative targeted at lawmakers and their constituents, the N.C. Hospital Association says hospitals are 'fighting for their economic survival.' [It was not said whether they were fighting in part because they had already managed to shoot themselves in their economic feet - Ed]

The association and some of the state’s bigger hospitals also are hiring more GOP lobbyists to make inroads with the Republicans who control the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion.

The hospital association recently began promoting a new website — — that describes an array of financial threats.

Wake Forest Baptist is a big part of this initiative:

When asked about its lobbying efforts, Wake Forest Baptist spokeswoman Paula Faria said last week that the center’s Office of Government Relations monitors proposed legislation and regulations at both the federal and state levels.

'It informs North Carolina’s congressional delegation, members of the General Assembly and their staff about how proposed language could impact the day-to-day operations of the medical center.'

Maybe they should be first worrying about the impact of badly chosen, designed, or implemented commercial health care information technology on "day-to-day operations of the medical center" first.


So the top executives of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have seen compensation rising at a rate greater than inflation and than the general public's income over the last few years.  In particular, the CEO has seen his compensation go up three and one-half times in three years!  The hospital system administration has justified this extraordinary increase by referring to supposedly "visionary" leadership.  Yet over this time frame these "visionaries" decided to implement an EHR whose first effects were to lose the hospital system a lot of money.  Based on previous anecdotes about the Epic system, it is quite possible it had other adverse effects.  For example, InformaticsMD discussed a case in which an EPIC system apparently lead to a large disruption in patient workflow and hence large increases in waits for acute care, and lead to errors that could have adversely affected patients.  So this underscores some important lessons:

So beware that "visionary" behind the curtain. As we have noted repeatedly, top health care managers can now easily make themselves rich.  They, their boards of directors (who may be their cronies), and their public relations flacks often justify their exorbitant compensation by their supposed brilliance, if not visionary status.  Such claims are rarely further explained, and mostly seem be be humbug, for want of a better term.  It seems that most top leaders of health care organizations have participated in the managers' coup d'etat, and become at least manager nobility, if not manager-kings  At least, the public should know that their compensation is what they can grab, and its justification is often nonsense. 

Note that contrary to a red herring argument often made, outrageous compensation is important not so much because of how much money it drains out of health care, although that can be large in the aggregate.  It is important because it reflects a system that is no longer accountable, and leaders who follow perverse incentives.

Such management compensation is almost never revisited to determine whether it turned out to be justified.  Instead, the public, watchdog organizations, health care professionals, and even politicians ought to demand accountability of health care management, good  justification for their compensation, and rationality for the incentives they are provided.  True health care reform would encourage well-informed, competent, mission-focused, honest, responsible, accountable and transparent management, leading organizations of manageable size.  But as long as things stay the same, expect the craziness to continue.   


InformaticsMD said...

I wonder if these "visionary leaders" had the vision to read this blog.

Likely not. Neither Dr. Poses nor I have good hair, shiny teeth, speak with grandiosity, nor generally wear expensive suits, these being the best measures of competence known to management-kind.

-- SS

Anonymous said...

The problems depeicted in your excellent report are widepread, but are obfuscated by the hospital leadership, as are the deaths and injuries of the patients whose care is run by these devices. We are all guimea pigs for the HIT vendors and visionary hospital leaders.

Steve Lucas said...

This reminds me of the idea of buying a baby elephant. Seems like a good idea at the time, but then the reality of feeding and caring for this animal as it grows, ultimately become the whole focus of one’s life.

It appears many are enamored with the idea of baby elephants, and their visionary idea is this will some how be good for the organization.

Steve Lucas

owlblazek said...

As my kids would say, "Epic fail!".

Anonymous said...

As a former employee of Wake Forest I can attest that the visionary leadership has only one vision and that is to improve the bottom line to "make their bonuses". This is the only qualification of the term visionary. The management spews rheotric about innovation and entrepreneurism,change, long-term sustainable solutions and the like while doing nothing innovative or sustainable themselves. The EHR is one of many implementations that Wake's "visionary" leadership has pursued - all with EPIC costs. During the reign of our King-CEO, they have opened 5 clinics and show no signs of stopping. This would seem to be good if the employees were not fleeing like rats from a ship. But large salary and compensation is reserved for the truly "worthy talent" and hence no one else in the institution has received such glorious increases. It sends a very poignant message to all employees - physicians, nurses, researchers, techs alike that attracting "talent" at the top is the only concern. As you pointed out, there have been layoffs and hiring freezes with really no end in sight. Citing that line clinical employees are not affected is not true however. Several departments were given mandatory furloughs not voluntary and I doubt it will ever revert as management will note its valuable contribution to their bonus checks. Besides the financial cost of "visionary" leadership, it has created a hostile, depressed environment. It's hard to determine if you should be glad to see someone in the hallways or not - either happy they haven't been fired/let go/given early retirement or sad that they are still there and having to cope with the same quagmire. Please note that the executive management did not decide to give themselves a mandatory furlough to show a sense of comraderie. Had they elected to reduce management's pay by 20% the institution could save an additional $2+ million. Again this type of visionary management decided to save their own checkbooks instead of really leading.
It's not that the decision to implement the EHR alone that has imploded the institution but a series of cloudy decisions. What is truly missing is oversight in a private institution to safeguard from these horrific changes. With a public entity at least there are shareholders to fight or maybe even a union. but this hospital is a private-not-for-profit entity. The only shareholders are the employees and the patients both of which hold little to no power. This type of management has no place in the health care industry and undermines the community it is supposed to serve.

Anonymous said...

interesting IRS information from WFU

Top floor day light robbery!