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5 Questions With Avera Health's New Chief Strategy and Growth Officer

By Melanie Blackman  
   October 15, 2020

Tom Clark talks about his new role, how his background has prepared him to serve, and what strategies the health system is implementing.

Avera Health announced the appointment of Tom Clark as the new chief strategy and growth officer in May, and he has served in the position since mid-July.

Avera Health CEO Bob Sutton created the chief strategy and growth officer position for the health system to "respond and meet patients’ and members’ needs in high-reliability, high-quality, and lower-cost scenarios," Sutton said in a press release. "We want to strengthen our leadership team to address just that."

Clark oversees the health system's health insurance division, eCARE telemedicine program, home health marketing, as well as the health system's performance, excellence strategy, and governance.

Prior to this role, Clark served as regional president and CEO of Avera Queen of Peace Hospital. He has over 30 years of experience in the healthcare sector.

Clark spoke with HealthLeaders about his new role, how his background has prepared him to serve, and what strategies the health system is working toward in the short and long term.

Tom Clark, chief strategy and growth officer, Avera Health (Photo courtesy of Avera Health)

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What was the strategy behind creating this new role?

Tom Clark: We had two senior executives who retired from Avera Health at the end of June, and so I took over both of their responsibilities. I have multiple things that I lead on a regular daily basis; I'm charged with being the one who rounds the point of strategy and growth.

We've always had a strategic focus, but I think we realized that we need to focus more on how do we grow both internally and externally in our markets. I always said that if you're not growing you're dying.

And so, how [can] we be smart about that? Like a lot of things, you achieve results where you put your focus and where you measure; that's the intent behind this position. If we're going to grow, then we need somebody who is paying attention to that, and thinking about that, every single day.

HL: The press release announcing your appointment stated that in this role you "will guide the health system’s strategic priorities in alignment with its vision for the future—to create healthier communities, now and for generations to come." What strategies are in place to achieve those goals?

Clark: We just completed a brand-new strategic plan for the health system. It was an 18-month process that involved multiple stakeholders across the footprint, nearly 2,000 people from across the system, providers, frontline staff, leaders, clinicians, and others were involved in developing this plan. It's a very comprehensive plan that's focused on our three values of hospitality stewardship.

… We have four pieces that we're looking at. One [is] telemedicine. We have one of the most, if not the most, robust rural telemedicine programs in the country with our Avera eCare.

What we've lived through with COVID has shown everyone the value and the importance of telemedicine virtual visits moving forward, even post-pandemic. How we meet people where they live, how we expand service offerings, telemedicine is critical to the way we deliver care to our most remote areas of our footprint. We're looking at opportunities of how do we grow and expand our telemedicine offerings.

We also are the proud owners of two insurance companies, making us truly one of the few fully integrated health systems in the country. We have every facet, not only from the hospitals, the clinics, the nursing homes, the home health, the DME, and all those aspects, but we also have the payer side as part of our organization. And so, how do we leverage that, especially as we move into value-based payment models, ACOs, and doing Medicare Advantage? How do we leverage that payer asset to help us achieve volume and footprint growth?

Third, is looking at growth within our footprint. We are currently the largest healthcare provider in the state of South Dakota. We have about 41% of the market share in the state. That's something that we're proud of, but there [are] opportunities for us to try to shift market share. We'll always be looking at ways that we can grow within our particular markets.

And last, is growth outside of our traditional footprint. There's opportunities that we need to consider. COVID has created opportunities. There [are] people out there, hospitals and other health systems, that through the financial strains are saying, 'We're not sure we can do this anymore on our own, and maybe we need to find a partner.' We're certainly open to those discussions if those opportunities arise.

We're not looking for growth outside the market just for growth's sake. But if there's opportunity, certainly, that are contiguous to our footprint, that makes sense from a strategic standpoint, we'd be looking at those opportunities as well.

HL: How did your previous roles within Avera Health and beyond prepare you for the chief strategy and growth officer role? And what are you most looking forward to in this role?

Clark: One of the things that I bring to the corporate office is my operational background. I've been a hospital operator for most of my career. I think sometimes in the system environment, and the central offices, sometimes we can lose touch of what's actually going on in the field. What our clinicians need to take care of patients, what they're experiencing in their day-to-day work, and so I think one of the things that I bring to the table is that operational perspective.

What I'm excited about is this strategic thinking piece. I've always kind of been a big picture guy. I like looking at where are we going to be not just in six months, or a year, but where are we going to be in five years, 10 years. And what do we have to do now to be in that place in that timeline. I enjoy trying to put the pieces together.

HL: What strategies are in place to help during the continuing COVID pandemic, coming into flu season, all while states are opening or opened up?

Clark: I think Avera is well prepared. We, like most systems and hospitals across the country, when all this started back in March and April, we shut down elective cases, we shut down testing, and all those types of things. The COVID patients never came, or at least not in great numbers. But we started to open things back up, and I think the lesson that everyone learned is, just like we function every year with the flu, this is just the new item.

Every year we're gonna have pneumonia patients, every year we're going to have flu patients. Now every year, we're going to have COVID patients. We have to learn how do we continue to operate, take care of people the way they need to be taken care of, and at the same time, be prepared to deal with [COVID cases].

We've learned [two] valuable lessons that financially we can't afford.

One, financially we can't afford to just stop our core services.

And two, one of the things that we're seeing is a large increase of very sick patients that are non-COVID. A lot of these patients are the result of people that put off care because of COVID, and did not come in and now they're really, really sick. We've got to do a better job of, how do we live with COVID, yet, how do we take care of those people that need the care that don't have COVID?

[A lot of us] in this industry have figured that out, and I think we're well positioned for that. Right now we're seeing a spike in cases in South Dakota, and our footprint [in] Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and North Dakota. But we're managing it. We haven't shut down surgeries, we haven't shut down testing, we haven't shut down taking care of chronic conditions. We're managing it. We're managing the beds, we're managing the vents when they're needed. We're in a pretty good place to ride it out. Hopefully the vaccine will be coming soon, which will then hopefully start to mitigate the volume and severity of what we're seeing.

HL: Do you think that other health systems should implement a strategy and growth officer role if they don't have one already?

Clark: I do know there's many health systems that already have this position in place.

You've got to grow. And you need somebody whose job is to think about that every day. What are our opportunities, how can we do these things better, how do we deploy capital in a smart way? Are we devoting enough capital toward growth initiatives, or is it all just going to routine maintenance? And those things are important, but if you don't keep a strategic view on that capital, you can quickly spend everything on maintenance items and so forth, and then you're not investing in how you can grow your business.

Having someone in this role, looking at that every day, being a voice at the table for this every day, as we're having operational discussions, is important. And I think you'll see more and more people devoting resources to [strategic roles] going forward.

Related: 9 Strategic Insights Into Developing the Healthcare System of the Future

Related: Henry Ford Health System's New CSO: How Healthcare Can Address Health Disparities and Inequities

“You achieve results where you put your focus and where you measure; that's the intent behind this position.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Avera Health


Avera Health has implemented a brand-new strategic plan for the health system that will focus on four key areas.

Creating the plan was an 18-month process that involved providers, frontline staff, leaders, clinicians, and others across the health system.

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