Why hospitals are like airlines and movie theaters

I prefer to talk about events before they take place, not after. I don’t know if that makes me a futurist or merely someone not bright enough to understand them as they now are.  I like to have a think about things that don’t seem right.  This helps me understand what I may be missing, or if I may be on to something.

I got one of my “ah-ha” moments while driving to the airport yesterday; something I have done a few hundred times.  I could drive the route in my sleep.  I know of two ways to get there, so I really never thought about needing a third.  My bad.  One of the roads I take was flooded—the rain was so hard it appeared to be raining up.  After being stuck in traffic for twenty minutes,—route number two.  Five minutes later, the drenched man by the side of the road told me the bridge was out.

I found myself out of choices, poor planning on my part.  I came to a fork in the road and took it.  I still had a reasonable amount of time to make my flight.  Then I found myself driving behind a nun who was driving a Rambler.  Really.  We never hit thirty on the speedometer.  I would have missed the flight had it not been delayed.

It occurred to me as I was stopped that I had failed to heed my own advice.  I was guilty of having no plan for what to do if things changed, guilty of having no options because, “I have always done things this way.”

I am speaking this afternoon about innovation and transformation for the large healthcare provider model (hospitals)—could take five minutes, could take an hour—we will have to see how many people brought tomatoes to throw.

The large provider business model is dying.  Play along with me for a minute.  How many different services and procedures are offered by the “average” hospital?   A couple thousand.  Some are performed hundreds of times each day, some on a somewhat regular basis, and some rarely.  Let’s focus on those done rarely.

The funny thing about having the ability to do something is you have to pay for the resources and technology whether you do it once or hundreds of times.  The less you do it, the larger the negative ROI.  Most large providers offer many services with negative ROIs.  How does one alter the business model to compensate for that?  Charge for parking; charge $7 for each Tylenol, outsource less profitable services.

It might be important to recognize that the reason many services—the ones most patients need—are marginally profitable is because those services are helping to fund the unprofitable services.

Sooner or later, hospitals cut loose the low-end services.  Others gobble them up, and make tremendous profits from offering them under a new business model.

I started thinking about other industries that operate under a similar business model.  The two I came up with are movie theaters and the large airlines—both which offer a service.  One of my early clients was the CFO of one of the country’s largest theaters.  They knew their costs down to the penny.  They lose money on every movie they show.  That is why they charge eight dollars for popcorn.  Their model is broken.  Are they changing it?  No.  Others changed it.  Blockbuster did.  Then their model broke.  Now we have NetFlixs.  They are making money without the popcorn.

Continental and United are merging.  Will that make things better?  Will they stop charging for bags?  Will they offer free meals?  More seat room?  Of course not.  Combined, they will lose even more money.  Their model is broken.  Are they changing it?  No.  What are they doing—buying even bigger planes.

You know who owns fifty-five percent of the flying market?  The pesky, disruptive regional carriers.  They make lots of money.  They have a different model, and they know their costs.

Disrupting the business model and changing the way you do something are not the same.  At some point there will be nothing left to change except for what you do.  Building a need for every sub-specialty offered by EPIC is not disruptive, it is dysfunctional.  Offering the same services as every other hospital within your coverage area is not disruptive, it is duplicative.  It simply divides the revenue pie for any given procedure into smaller slices.

Hospitals know their charges, not their costs.  They can’t pull a P&L per patient, or per procedure.  How can one price an Accountable Care model without knowing the costs?  An executive at a large children’s hospital told me they have to markup the costs of little things, like pills, two-hundred and fifty percent.  Unless hospitals are prepared to disrupt their business model, they had better buy a lot more pills.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942

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5 thoughts on “Why hospitals are like airlines and movie theaters

  1. Paul, good article. So effectively the Ortho, GI, Dialysis, OBGYN and other processes will go to specialized outsourced providers to the hospital, that are near or in the hospital; but the hospital in your view will retain it’s triage ER model into the forseeable future?


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  4. Great article, and I can feel you on this one. I’ve seen hospitals cut things that are bringing in money because they think the latest and greatest thing will bring them even more money, yet they can’t afford to pay for both things at the same time until it’s been proven. I’ve also seen hospitals determine they need something that the other hospitals in the market have just to compete, without realizing that their market can’t really support every hospital providing the same service.

    I sometimes wonder why a “lowly” consultant can figure this out, while a CEO with possibly a PH.D. can’t. Oh yeah; because a degree doesn’t necessarily mean someone has the background or real experience to see when certain changes should or shouldn’t be made.


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