Sounding Board

Philip Betbeze, for HealthLeaders Media, June 16, 2008

I've written a lot lately about how healthcare providers are finding it necessary to compete as never before. We've written a lot in HealthLeaders magazine over the years about mission and margin, two goals that for nonprofit organizations like hospitals often seem at cross purposes. Sometimes leaders get wrapped up in the bizarro world of healthcare, an industry that depends on a super-complicated web of third-party payments and gaming the system. It's a survival strategy, CEOs and CFOs tell me. All that is necessary work. You should be working to improve your revenue cycle. You should be training your physicians and coders to make sure they get the reimbursement your hospital deserves.

But sometimes we get so wrapped up in that rat race that we don't take the opportunity to take in new ideas—to listen to what other industries have to offer.

All of the editors here at HealthLeaders, including myself, have an advisory board to help us sort out the issues. Mine's made up mostly of CFOs I trust to give me the straight dope—off the record, of course—about their frustrations and trouble spots, as well as their successes and accomplishments. It's the only way I can learn about this stuff from behind my desk in an anonymous office park in Brentwood, TN. My advisory board has proven to be a valuable resource for me as I feel out trends and an indispensable sounding board off which to bounce story ideas.

But I was surprised to learn that some of you have your own similar advisory boards. In Mark Laret's case, he's drawn a group of successful CEOs and former CEOs from around the San Francisco Bay area to advise him on the direction of the hospital he runs, the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. I first met Mark, that hospital's CEO, a year or so ago in the process of reporting this personalities feature about his affiliation with Mercy Ships for HealthLeaders magazine. Often I interview folks on one subject and am left with lots of leftover material that I can't find a use for at that moment. His business advisory board was one of those side paths we took during the interview.

I've left it languishing in my notes, and for that, I apologize. But Laret says essentially that he couldn't live without the folks who populate his board. This high-powered group of current and former big-time business executives doesn't have time to waste, but makes time each quarter for a half-day meeting with Laret and his leadership team. At the time, his chairman was Dick Rosenberg, the former chairman and CEO of Bank of America. Also on the board were Howard Lester, former chairman of Pottery Barn/Williams-Sonoma; Max Messmer, chairman of Robert Half International; Bill Davidoff, one of the first venture capitalists in Silicon Valley; Doug Shorenstein, an office building developer; and Mike Ullman, chairman and CEO of JCPenney.

Quite simply, Laret calls the advisory board, which he formed a little more than seven years ago, "the best idea I've ever had."

"It's a great resource to test out our business strategies," he says, (for example, how to deal with third-party payers, dealing with pricing, and market strategies). "They have also been helpful with patient safety and helping think through how businesspeople might evaluate some of the challenges that face us in healthcare." The board meets quarterly, and in return for a presentation by one of the medical center's research scientists or one of its clinicians, the board gives Laret and his leadership team "priceless business advice," as he so eloquently puts it.

Priceless. As in, free. It doesn't get any better than that.

Philip Betbeze is finance editor with HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at
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