Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Leonardo Seoane share details around the strategic plan and the role Ochsner will play in "tackling health equity."
In recent years, Louisiana has struggled as one of the nation's unhealthiest states, placing 49th in 2019 and 2020 by America's Health Rankings.
Ochsner Health, a Louisiana-based nonprofit academic health system consisting of 40 hospitals, along with government officials, and state and local leaders, announced last November the launch of a 10-year project to “enhance healthcare access, improve health equity and health outcomes" for the Pelican State.
In the first five years of implementation, $100 million will be invested to open 15 community health centers across the state, create a center of health equity in partnership with Xavier University of New Orleans, and invest into multiple scholars' programs to keep clinical workers in-state post-graduation.
HealthLeaders spoke with Ochsner President and CEO Warner Thomas and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Leonardo Seoane, where they shared details around the strategic plan and the role Ochsner will play in its implementation.
Partnering for a healthier state
According to Thomas, the initial idea for this project came from Ochsner's board of directors at the end of 2019. Going into the next decade, they wanted to figure out what Ochsner should be focused on in the long-term.
"The board challenged management and our physician leaders to put together a vision of how we can make Louisiana a healthier state," Thomas said.
In the process, the organization realized that it would need to partner with other organizations to make that a reality.
"Ochsner cannot do it alone, even though we're the largest provider in the state of Louisiana. We have to do it with other partners, other federally qualified health centers, other providers systems, other government agencies, and the public health infrastructure—we all have to work together," Thomas said.
He added, "It's a first step to make a broader commitment of improving access."
A partnership which will play a pivotal role in the vision is Ochsner's ongoing partnership with Xavier University of New Orleans.
"Ochsner and Xavier have been working together for a long time, dating back to the '80s when we partnered around the pharmacy school at Xavier," Seoane said.
"Most recently, Ochsner and Xavier teamed together to develop a physician assistant [program] which doubles the number of physician assistants [graduating and entering the workforce] in the state of Louisiana," Seoane said.
Seoane also said the university has a strong background in health equity.
"Xavier has a distinction of placing more African Americans into medical school than any other university [in Louisiana]," he said. "We see this partner to be more than just focusing on the clinical side. It also [helps create] a pipeline to increase the diversity of all providers. There's growing data that when providers reflect the communities they serve, there's better care."
"Health equity is a very complex and complicated subject and topic," he went on. "Part of our partnership with Xavier is we're going to develop a research center to look at health equity."
Ochsner also has a strong background in research in health equity. Through the Center for Outcomes and Health Services Research, the health system focuses on the improvement of "clinical practices and the health and well-being" of the community.
One of the health system's key researchers, Dr. Eboni Price-Haywood, led a study that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June about "the disproportionate burden that African Americans were having with COVID," Seoane said.
He also added, "We're excited about tackling health equity, and we understand that to improve the overall health of Louisiana, we have to improve health equity."
Opening health centers across the state
Ochsner identified communities throughout the state where there are healthcare access challenges, or where there are "a high incidence of ER visits that are targeted towards conditions that can be taken care of in a primary care or a community health center setting," Thomas said. In identifying these needs, the hope is that ER utilization will go down and healthcare access will go up.
"We've analyzed ER utilization … and [are] looking for places where it looks like we have a disproportion amount of folks coming to the ER for conditions that we should, or could, be training in community health centers," Thomas said. "Then we're going to those areas and building community health centers and creating better access for people in those markets."
He added, "[This] will help us to keep more folks out of our ERs. And with our digital health tools for hypertension management, diabetes management, [we'll] potentially be able to help [more people] manage their chronic diseases in a more effective and efficient fashion."
Ochsner and Xavier community center for health equity
Through the organizations' ongoing partnership, Ochsner and Xavier will focus on creating health equity across the state through creating a strong workforce.
"We're going to do that through advocacy health careers. That includes diversity of healthcare providers, and that includes going into neighborhoods where we can do training," Seoane said. "We need medical assistants; we need medical technologists. As a large healthcare system, we need qualified employees to help care for our citizens, and so being able to go and offer an opportunity for people to get employment is going to be a part of this."
"There's also community partnership, and we cannot improve community health unless it's us with communities working together to improve health."
Through the community center for health equity, the organizations will focus on five key pillars:
- Population health
- Healthcare careers
- Community engagement
Ochsner scholars' program
Ochsner will also be rolling out a scholars' program this year to staff its primary care and behavioral health operations across the state.
"Data shows that states that have more primary care physicians per capita have better health maintenance. Louisiana, as you would expect, has one of the lowest amounts of primary care doctors per capita. The idea is to promote health careers in primary care," Seoane said. "The other area where we acutely feel shortages is in psychiatry. Behavioral health is a huge issue, and post-COVID is going to [make it] larger."
Students of partnered medical schools, including Louisiana State University Shreveport and The University of Queensland in Australia, can get tuition reimbursement "in return for a five-year commitment to practice primary care or psychiatry at Ochsner," Seoane said.
Additionally, Ochsner is developing a nursing and allied health scholars' program with Chamberlain University and Loyola University, to "increase the amount of nurses committed to staying in the state of Louisiana," Seoane said.
'A catalyst for change'
Ochsner has 40 hospitals and over 100 health centers across the state and sees the 10-year strategic vision as part of the organization's DNA.
According to Thomas, Ochsner can't solve Louisiana’s healthcare problems on its own but said that the organization can “bring the table together” to address some of these outstanding issues.
"We owe it to the communities that we serve, and to the state, to be a catalyst to improve the health of the region," Thomas said. "We're going through this pandemic. We see challenges in the health status of the people who live around us. And we really felt that we have the opportunity."
Seoane grew up in Louisiana and said he has experienced these same challenges throughout the state.
"My entire medical career has been here at Ochsner," he said. "It's in our DNA to address something like this."
He added, "We understand it takes population health to do these things, and we've been leading in that area for the last 10 years or so."
Thomas said he hopes that more organizations will join in on the efforts in-state, and across the country.
"I'm hopeful that other health systems and other entities will join together with us to lift up our state and to lift up our communities," he said. "I think if we had everyone focus on these types of efforts, nationally, we could improve the health of our country."
"It's a big initiative, it's a big investment, and it's going to be challenging. But at the same time, we want to be that catalyst for change, and we're optimistic that we can make a difference over the next decade," Thomas said.
Thomas' advice for health systems who want to implement this type of vision strategy is to start by looking at the data available to them.
"You have to start with understanding what are the drivers of the health status of your population," he said. "But then you have to be willing to take some chances; you have to be willing to fail. And you must be willing to put yourself out there and put a stake in the ground.
"That's what we've done," he added, "And we'll see over the coming years how we do against that challenge."
“We want to be that catalyst for change, and we're optimistic that we can make a difference over the next decade.”
— Warner Thomas, president, CEO, Ochsner Health
Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.
Louisiana has placed in the bottom rankings for the past decade by America's Health Rankings, recently placing in 49th place for 2020.
Through an ongoing partnership, Ochsner and Xavier University of New Orleans will take steps to focus on and research health equity.
$100 million will be invested in the first five years to kick-start the 10-year vision which includes building health centers, training the workforce, and working with universities to pipeline new health workers.