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Collaborate, Don't Crush

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Magazine, March 12, 2009
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A growing number of hospital leaders are discovering that success can hinge on partnering with competitors, not defeating them.

Hospital CEOs are often schooled in the art of attack—grab market share, grow service lines, be the best healthcare provider in the region. But many executives are discovering that crushing the competition may not be the best way to achieve those goals. The challenge for CEOs is finding ways to build beneficial relationships with other healthcare institutions that, in many cases, also happen to be their biggest competitors.

"Competing has a lot of flaws to it," says David Spillers, CEO of 900-staffed-bed Huntsville (AL) Hospital. "In addition to increasing cost and duplicating services, I just don't think it is an effective way for us to be successful."

Learning to collaborate effectively with other healthcare organizations is not an easy skill to master. For many CEOs who have built their careers on competition, it goes against what they know. Unfortunately, healthcare leaders don't have a lot of time to figure it out. Being able to quickly adapt will be one of the keys to not only surviving but succeeding in the future—especially in light of current economic conditions.

"Healthcare does not change at the rate and speed it needs to change," says Martin Gavin, president and CEO of

Connecticut Children's Medical Center, a 135-staffed-bed facility in Hartford. Gavin spent 30 years in the insurance and investment industries before taking on his current role almost three years ago. Success is not about being the strongest, Gavin says, referencing Charles Darwin's famous quote. "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

The same can be applied to healthcare, he says. "Sometimes you have to decide what you can do the best and truly do it in a way that provides excellent quality service, then partner with others to fill in where you can't be the best."

Laying the foundation
A successful partnership hinges on trust. Not only do the CEOs involved need to trust each other, but so do the hospital trustees and other stakeholders in the community such as physicians, politicians, and community leaders.

Transparency is one tool that organizations can use to help build that trust, Spillers says. He advises organizations to share all of the information they know their potential partner may need to know. "Don't hide anything," says Spillers, who is no stranger to collaboration. In October 2007, he formalized an affiliation agreement with 100-staffed-bed Athens-Limestone Hospital, which is located roughly 25 miles away.

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