Patient Relationship Management–lessons from Thumper

Today it feels like I got a little too befuddled, steered into the skid, and took a left into the dementia cul-de-sac.  I like to dig a little esoteric hole right up front to test myself—hopefully I won’t overshoot.

One billion, two hundred and twenty million. That’s the number of hits on Google for ‘hotel’. A fairly competitive business one could easily surmise. A business in which one would benefit by trying to attract and retain customers, especially loyal customers. Their tagline is, ‘It happens at the Hilton’. You know what they say, ‘It happens’–it certainly does, ‘It’ happened to me. I’m standing at the Hilton Honors desk, checking in to the hotel. I’m in Memphis. Tennessee is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been. The people are genuine. We go through the niceties of how my flight was, and what I’m doing in Memphis. Yada, yada. I then provide the clerk with my Hilton Honors number.

“I’m afraid you don’t exist, Mr. Roemer.”

I have the right to remain silent; I just don’t have the ability. I can feel it coming. I’m about to have a Roemer-minute. You know the feeling, when the words are going to jump pass the lips before you have the chance to go into lock down mode. I’m a bit of a stickler for English, so I press him to do better with his statement. “Here I am”—I am Sam, Sam I am, I wanted to add, but I didn’t know how up to speed his was with his Green Eggs and Ham reading. “How can I not exist?”

“In the system. You’ve expired—I checked my pulse to make sure I hadn’t—you’ve been deleted.”

“My reservation?”

“No, you. You are no longer an Honors Club member.”

Now I had it. I hadn’t expired, they expired me. Somebody had to think up that little gem of an idea, and somebody else had to approve it. They could have just pretended I was still in their little club and not said anything and everything would have been fine. Bambi 101. Thumper’s mother; ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” A clear violation of the rule. As competitive as the hospitality industry seems to be, how smart does one need to be to know that it is not a good idea to expire customers?

I was in the middle of my run today, four miles away from the parking lot.  Next to the dirt trail was a bright orange Igloo water cooler with a hand-written note stating it was provided by a local running store.

What have you done for your patients recently?  What makes you stand out?

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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If you come to a fork in the restaurant…

In Greek mythology, there was a not so nice man, Procrustes.  He had an iron bed in which he invited wayfaring strangers to spend the night.  Some of the strangers were too long for the bed and others were too short.

Apparently Procrustes liked things orderly and could be a tad anal when learning his guests did not fit.  He would set on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch the shorter ones to fit.  If the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length.  Truth be told, nobody ever fit the bed exactly because Procrustes had two beds.

In contemporary terms, a Procrustean Bed is an arbitrary standard to which compliance is forced.  A Procrustean Solution involves fitting a business problem to a preconceived set of strictures.

Raise your hand if you have already figured out where this is headed.  Preconceived.  Arbitrary.  Compliance.  Strictures.

Do you spell Meaningful Use with an upper case Procrustean or one in lower case?  I prefer the upper case.  The business problem being fitted is the implementation of EHR.  The preconceived sets of strictures are the Meaningful Use standards.

This in turn leaves the healthcare provider in what is best described as a Morton’s Fork scenario.  Shall I explain?  A Morton’s Fork is a choice between two equally unattractive alternatives—a dilemma.  The concept originated in 1487 under the rule of Henry the VII as a result of tax policy to ensure everyone paid taxes.  The argument was because the rich had enough money to buy things they must have enough money to pay taxes, and the poor who had bought nothing had saved their money, and thus had money with which to pay taxes.  The two prongs of the fork—back then forks only had two prongs.  Q. E. D.

The healthcare provider must choose between—as one may not choose among—two alternatives.  Attempt to meet Meaningful Use—a Procrustean Solution—turn their business model inside out to meet the government’s Gossamer standards.

Attempting to meet the standards does not ensure they will in fact meet the standards.  Should they only meet ninety-nine percent of the standards, they lose.  The Pareto principle does not apply.  There is no 80:20 rule.  They will not receive any incentive money as Meaningful Use is an all or nothing game.

The second alternative is to not meet Meaningful Use.  This choice may be voluntary, or involuntary—trying to meet Meaningful Use and failing.  Alternative Two—it is said—will result in reimbursement penalties from Medicaid and Medicare.

I do not think those penalties will be implemented, or at least they will not be implemented in the documented timeframe.

I also do not think there is a Morton’s Fork, because I think Meaningful Use will disappear because it is so arbitrary and capricious—and because the number of large providers who will meet it could all drive to lunch at Morton’s in a Yugo, at which time they could dine with a fork from Morton’s.

We have now come full circle.  My work here is through.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Are terrorists smarter than us?

Sri Lanka has been in a twenty-six year civil war with the Tamil Tigers. NPR reported the leader of the Tigers was killed. Within a day, the Tamil Tigers’ web site posted a blurb stating that the leader was not killed—a la Monty Python—“I’m not dead yet.”

I’ll be brief. The bad guys. These bad guys live in the jungles, others live in the Afghan mountains. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, they don’t use Cisco servers, they don’t have a call center. There’s no marketing department, no financial analysts, no freshly minted MBAs walking the hallways telling them what to do.  They have established virtual nations.

Yet as primitive as these groups are, they know the value of rapidly employing social networking to their advantage. What amazes me is not that they do it, but that most people reading this don’t have a proactive policy and the resources required to effectively manage their social media.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Is this a fair representation of the hospital business model?

I have been looking for a way to represent pictorially the hospital business model and the forces which act upon it.  The picture below came to me last night while playing this board game with my daughter.  It is from the children’s game, Boobytrap.  The way the game is played is that the players try to remove the red, blue, and green pieces without causing the trap to spring and displace all of the pieces.

If we represent patients as the individual playing pieces and make the assumption that each side of the game exerts pressure on the model, I think it represents fairly the external forces with which the large provider model has to battle.  As the forces increase from some combination of costs, regulation, procedure price ceilings, and payor reimbursements, the number of patients in the model will decrease and may do so in a catastrophic manner.  Without a concurrent decrease in those four forces it is unlikely that the model will support additional patients.  Clearly, without changing the size of the board it is impossible to grow the number of patients beyond the board’s capacity.

A couple rules come into play.

  • The forces are all external.  They cannot be controlled or abated by the hospital.
  • The strengths of the various forces change over time
  • The forces result in some maximum number of patients which can be serviced under the hospital’s existing business model.
  • As each patient is lost, the stability of the model weakens.

Does this way of depicting the large provider business model ring true?  Does this help illustrate why the model must change?

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Wayne Newton’s 4th law of relative immobility

Last night I was speaking with a woman at a gathering of graduates from my high school.  She got into the subject of reading glasses and then commented that she first learned she needed regular glasses since the age of four.

As she was not wearing glasses, I asked her if she’d had Lasik.  No, she said, “I always hated how I looked in them, so I quit wearing them in high school.”

“Don’t you miss being able to see things?” I asked.

“Not really.  This is how I’ve seen the world for the past thirty years.  I’ve grown comfortable with how I see the world.”

I think a lot of business leaders have the same perspective—sorry for the pun.  They get comfortable with how they see their world—comfortable with the issues and how to address them.  Given the choice, people will stay in their comfort zone.

Do you remember your physics?  Relative motion is the branch of physics that studies the motion of the body relative to the motion of another moving body (Newton).  For example, if you are in a train and another traveling at the same speed pulls alongside you, it appears to both set of passengers that neither train is moving.  If your train decelerates it will appear to you the other train has accelerated.

Now, take the perspective of someone standing on the platform viewing the two trains.  To that person, there is no illusion.  The bystander can see exactly what is happening; who is moving forward and who isn’t.

Business leaders get caught up in what I call Wayne Newton’s 4th law of relative immobility.  When they look out their windows at the executive in the hospital across the street, it appears they are both moving at the same speed and at the same direction.  That is how they have seen the world each day for the last several years.  They look at each other, wave, and then go about their business, knowing their competitor hasn’t passed them or changed course.

But you and I know why it looks that way to them.  The reason they have not been passed is because neither hospital is moving forward.  The reason they do not perceive a change of direction is that they are both moving in the same direction.  In actuality, there is no motion.  Only an outsider can see neither hospital is moving.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Herman Melville’s take on healthcare’s business strategy

Someone once summed up one of Fred Astaire’s screen tests with the following; “Can’t sing.  Can’t act.  Balding.  Can dance a little.”  Probably the same guy who evaluated my Mensa application.  I’ve been accused of having a similar outlook.  I once accosted a guy who was walking on water, accusing him of not being able to swim—but that was a looonnngggg time ago.

The internet is full of opinions, but hopefully not full enough. One of the reasons I chose math over English as my major was the affection I held for getting the right answer, or barring that being able to know precisely where my errant efforts led me away from the answer.

In my narrow-minded view of the universe the downside of English, literature—the soft studies—was the notion held by those who taught that there was more to be divined by the story than just the story.  Those who can do; those who can’t teach.  They displayed a Stepford mentality in their obdurate ability to outthink both the author and their students, to bring forth nascent ideas of the author’s hidden meaning.

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick.  I am willing to bet he wrote it just the way he intended to.  Nobody has uncovered a frayed notebook of Melville having penned his thoughts about the real meaning of life from a cannibal’s perspective, or suggesting Queequeg was a misunderstood cross-dressing sycophant who was never close to his mother.  We don’t come away from our reading of Moby Dick  with a more in-depth ability to understand anything except for perhaps what it felt like to live aboard a whaling ship.

These interpretations are poppycock.  Art critics do the same thing as they bloviate about the hidden meaning behind what the artist really intended to convey, meaning only they can see.  Ever notice how none of these popinjays, these opiners present their opinions as fact?  Pretentious fops.

I write and paint.  Those who’ve read my missives know there is no buried meaning.  If I had wanted to convey something else I would have written something else.  If I use dark colors and bold brush strokes when I paint it is because I feel they add to what I want to show; it is not a reflection of having missed two days of Zoloft.

Nobody will ever know what Shakespeare intended to convey with his addition of the three witches in Macbeth, or whether Joyce Kilmer had ever seen a tree.  That said, I do have a few strong opinions about where this whole business model of healthcare is headed.  I think these types of opinions; along with the opposite opinions differ from the type offered up as truths in an English Lit class.  They differ in that at some point they will be proven right or wrong—time will tell.

As I have written, I think the large provider model—the business model—is seriously flawed.  Moreover, I think it may prove fatal.  Providers will run out of costs to cut, will run out of processes to re-engineer, and will have no more Italian marble with which to line the foyer.  The good news is that they will still have the machine that goes “Ping” just in case somebody needs it.

I do wonder how Melville would have expressed his ideas about healthcare.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Hospital marketing strategies–my non sequiter

I had piloted the Piper Cub for seven hours across endless miles of ocean.  The crash of my small plane left me alone on the uninhabited treeless atoll somewhere in the south Pacific.  I would have been sunburned badly if not for the shade cast by the thirty-foot tall New Jersey hospital’s billboard heralding its urology practice.  The billboard reminded me of the one I saw while solo kayaking the lower regions of Antarctica.  That billboard was from a hospital in Minot, North Dakota advertising its OB/GYN services.  Did you know there has never been a birth in Antarctica?

Hospital marketing has doubled in the last decade.  To whom are they marketing?  Appendectomies; twenty-percent off.  Maybe I’ll get two.  Perhaps I’ll buy some Plavix while I’m at it.

Ninety percent of hospital revenues result from a physician’s signature.  From where does the other ten percent originate, marketing?  Doubtful.  Do the billboards yield more physician signatures?

Hospital television advertising seems to focus its shotgun message in one of two areas; unsubstantiated claims of being the best or having the most, or having the latest and greatest machine that goes “Ping.”  You’ve seen the commercials broadcast to a television coverage area of a few million, advertising newly acquired technology for a non-elective procedure—that cost more than a few million—that less than a fraction of a single percentage of the population will need.  By the way, it is the same piece of technology that three other areas hospitals offer.

I am not sure I understand the logic behind hospital marketing.  Does it merely stem from the fact that other businesses do it?  I have personal knowledge of one hospital’s chief marketing officer whose annual salary exceeds more than four hundred thousand dollars.  She had no prior experience in healthcare.

Would revenues drop precipitously if hospitals did not market themselves?

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Is your hospital’s strategy like everybody’s?

In high school when my mother thought I needed to come down a peg or two she would call me, “Never Wrong Roemer.”  Today I prefer to go by, “Dr. Knowledge” or “The Voice of Reason.”  You can just call me Paul.

During my senior year of track I competed in the pole vault and I anchored the mile relay.  In the interest of transparency, I think it more appropriate to say I ran the fourth leg of the mile relay—anchoring implies more speed than I actually possessed. On good days, we fielded a mediocre team.

I never enjoyed running the 440.  It is for sprinters, and I am a distance runner.  One day however I unwittingly became a sprinter.  We were in a dual meet against Wilde Lake High School.  As always, the mile relay is the last event.  If we won the relay we would win the meet.

The fourth runner from Wilde Lake received the baton several seconds before me and had me by twenty yards.  I made up the distance between us midway through the first turn.  One inconsequential factor I did not know at the time is that two years later he would be participating in the Olympic trials in the 440.

It turned out not to be so inconsequential.  What happened after I pulled alongside of him remains a bit of a blur; the same kind of blur the Wile E. Coyote saw each time he thought he had caught the Road Runner.  Turns out I had outsmarted myself.  I was caught up in the moment which is nothing like being caught up in the reality of the situation.  I was in a competition I couldn’t win and I did not know it until it was too late.

Business is a lot like that.  Leaders get caught up in the ferocity of what is going on around them.  You’ve seen them; you work with them.  These are the same people who don’t have an opening on their calendar for six weeks, the same people who are busy putting out last month’s fires, who are hurriedly building defenses for whatever may be around the next corner.

Some of those intelligent and well meaning leaders are so focused on catching the runner in front of them that they lose sight of the race, lose sight of their role as leaders.  Some leaders approach healthcare strategy as a series of directionless sprints while others view it as a marathon in a pack of lemmings.  If everyone is running in the same direction, how wrong can their strategy be if they stay with the pack?

I think we will discover in the next several years many of those marathoners will drop out or be disqualified.  They are approaching a poorly marked turn, and if they fail to take it they will be overcome by one or more of a multitude of factors that will eventually lead to their demise.

While it is impossible to disprove a negative, time will tell.  My advice—next time you see a fork in the road, take it.

Then there was the time I asked my mother to drop me off a half mile away from my girlfriend’s house so she would think I ran the full eight miles to come see her.  But, we will leave that story for another time.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Is your mission statement web site parsley?

What is your organization’s mission, your vision, your goal?  Can you articulate it?  If yes, write it below in the space provided.

Okay.  Why do you have a mission statement?  Is its purpose merely website parsley, or is it actionable?  What does it tell you to do?  Is it something to which all of your employees can contribute?  Can you measure if your actions helped meet the mission?  Does the business strategy result from the mission statement?

Here’s one you probably haven’t thought of.  Let’s say every one of your employees puts your mission statement into action.  Does that improve your organization, or does it bring it to its knees?  Your mission statement either communicates your mission or it does not.  What does it say to your employees, to your customers?  If it does not create a message that makes you unique, fix it or dump it—or say, “We are just like those other guys down the street.”  Just because it communicates, does not make your mission sustainable.

Here are some real examples of hospital mission/vision statements.  Read them and see if you begin to understand why I think the hospital business model is in trouble.  I have not published the name of the hospital, as that is not what is important to this discussion.

Providing exemplary physical, emotional and spiritual care for each of our patients and their families

Balancing the continued commitment to the care of the poor and those most in need with the provision of highly specialized services to a broader community

Building a work environment where each person is valued, respected and has an opportunity for personal and professional growth

Advancing excellence in health services education

Fostering a culture of discovery in all of our activities and supporting exemplary health sciences research

Strengthening our relationships with universities, colleges, other hospitals, agencies and our community

Provide quality health services and facilities for the community, to promote wellness, to relieve suffering, and to restore health as swiftly, safely, and humanely as it can be done, consistent with the best service we can give at the highest value for all concerned

To participate in the creation of healthier lives within the community. * To provide healthcare services in a fiscally responsible manner which contribute to the physical, psychological, social and spiritual well being of the patients and community which it serves. * To provide assistance to the whole person in a Catholic spirit of equality and interfaith serving all regardless of age, color, creed or gender.

We are caring people operating an extraordinary community hospital.

Ensure access to superior quality integrated health care for our community and expand access for underserved populations within the community. Create a supportive team environment for patients, employees, and clinical staff.

Let’s look at some of the million dollar words in the mission statements of some highly regarded hospitals.  Ensure, foster, promote, participate, create.  Comprehensive.  Involved, responsive, collaborate, enable, facilitate, passion, best, unparalleled, .  These statements were written by well paid adults.  These statements are awful.  They are awful because they are fluff—unachievable.  They are well intentioned but meaningless euphemisms.

Here’s my attempt at writing a concise mission statement based on the business models I’ve seen.  We will buy every piece of technology and hire any specialist so we can treat any problem.

Hospital mission statements are very inclusive.  They also seem very similar.  If a perspective patient read your mission statement and read the mission statement of the hospital down the street, could they tell which one is yours?  Probably not.  Who among you has a mission statement which excludes anything?

So, let’s say your board is debating if you should buy the machine in Monty Python’s hospital skit—the machine that goes “Ping.”  Which of the mission’s goals does that support?

How do you make them better?  For starters, make them short. Very.  One writer wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written less.

Southwest Airline’s mission statement—be the low cost carrier.

Dramatic pause.  Something either contributes to the mission or it does not.  Leather seats and free lunches do not.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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Are hospitals causing themselves to go broke?

In our prior home we built a magnificent 1,600 bottle mahogany wine cellar with an in-laid brick floor, a nine-foot high antique door, a cigar humidor, and a tasting table.  We discovered that hexagonally shaped ceramic chimney flue pipes were the perfect building material.  They stacked like honeycomb and helped keep the wine chilled.

Our idea was to enjoy the wines we had collected over time.  There is a trick to being a successful wine collector—one must collect more wines than one consumes.  The principle of buying three and drinking four made our cellar always look brand new—empty.

The same principle applies to business strategy.  One must ensure that inputs exceed outputs, that cash in exceeds cash out.  Wax on—wax off.

If service “A” sells for a hundred dollars and it costs eighty dollars to deliver, that is a sustainable model.  You get to pocket twenty dollars.

If service “B” costs a million dollars a year to be able to offer the service and you can only charge eighty thousand dollars per patient, and fewer than twelve patients require the service, that model is not sustainable.

What happens next?  You have to start borrowing money from somewhere.  Often it comes from those twenty dollars you pocketed from the other services.  Then what happens?  Each time you take the profits away from service “A” to underwrite service “B” you have made both services unsustainable.

Cross-pollinate this concept across a five hundred bed hospital, a hospital whose model already requires it to offer “loss leader” services like caring for the indigent and ER and you can see the model has problems.  It may be possible to keep the model on life support by charging eight dollars for each Tylenol, but sooner or later that model will fail.

While we are at it, let’s look at what happens to service “A”.  The hospital stops performing “A” because they no longer find it profitable.  Then what?  Service “A” gets picked up by a clinic who can deliver it at a cost of forty dollars instead of the eighty it cost the hospital.

It is never the service that is the problem, it is the business model behind the service.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 885-6942
paulroemer@healthcareitstrategy.com

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