In his first weeks as CEO of CommonSpirit Health, Wright Lassiter is focusing on a few key priorities that he says will help the largest not-for-profit system in the country navigate a post-COVID world.
Chief among them for the 140-hospital system is managing the labor shortage. CommonSpirit, which has 150,000 employees across 21 states, is forming an internal staffing agency and nursing residency program to bolster its workforce. The $33.3 billion health system also looking for acquisitions to help it grow while balancing costs, Lassiter said.
Lassiter previously led Detroit-based Henry Ford Health. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MH: How are you settling in? How much do you have to start from scratch, given the makeup of CommonSpirit versus your experience as a health system CEO?
Lassiter: Experience goes only goes so far without context. It’s important to spend a lot of time with your ears wide open and your mouth somewhat closed to get to know people and to understand their “why’s.” Given that this is the third organization that I’ve taken on as a CEO, your experience helps streamline what things are highest priority and what things are interesting but maybe not a high priority. And with an organization with the size, scope and scale of CommonSpirit, there’s a lot to take in. I’m out here today in one of our divisions in the Southwest to hear about what they are most proud of and what their challenges are. They hear from me about why I’m here and how I hope to help support them on behalf of the organization and the ministry. Then, I’m doing the thing most leaders love but we have to be a little careful about, and that is touring. We can touch and feel the essence of what our organizations are as healthcare entities without being disruptive. I’m really cognizant of the fact that when you’re the CEO of a big company, every time you step into the front lines you’re a disruption because people want to stop, shake your hand and tell you what they love about the place and why they’ve been doing it for one, two, five, 10 or 20 years. But every time they do that, they’re taking time away from the thing that’s most important, which is how do you deliver the care the community needs.
MH: What are your short- and long-term priorities?
Lassiter: We’ve got well over 150,000 individuals who come to work every day. The leader of the organization needs to first and foremost deliver on a promise, which is the promise of creating a great place to work and a place to deliver your best self. And then clearly in the challenging and trying post-pandemic times that healthcare is facing and all the either new realities or more emboldened realities that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, there are tons of financial headwinds and financial pressures that organizations like CommonSpirit face—in particular, organizations that choose to care for historically marginalized communities and rural populations, which is a central tenet to our mission and to our Catholic identity.
MH: CommonSpirit embarked on a cost-saving journey prior to your appointment, with a plan to cut $2 billion in costs over five years. How do you manage these labor expense headwinds while keeping in mind that you are trying to become a more cost-efficient organization?
Lassiter: The cost platform for healthcare organizations is a high priority for all of us. But I would also just say to balance that, you have to always put into alignment how you grow along with how you manage expenses. You can’t be successful just managing expenses. You also can’t be successful just trying to grow without ensuring that your productivity and your expenses for supplies and labor are in line. We don’t have the luxury that other industries have where they can just simply grow the top line and not worry as much about expenses, we’ve got to worry about both. Both sides of that line present challenges for us.
MH: Inorganic and organic growth?
Lassiter: The short answer is yes. Our ministries clearly serve communities where organic growth is an absolutely critical success factor because there are parts of the country where you’re seeing growth year-over-year in population and in in-migration. I’m currently in Arizona, where I think Maricopa County is the No. 1 growth community in the U.S. There are certainly opportunities for growth. But then inorganic growth is also important, and we’re evaluating all the markets we serve and how we’re showing up in those communities and where there may be opportunities for us to show up in different ways and to bolster our ability to deliver high quality, prospective care.
MH: What do you see as the opportunities for CommonSpirit Health, which has such a vast geographic footprint?
Lassiter: We are creating this internal nationwide staffing agency to create a platform whereby nurses can work in 21 states without having to leave the employer, without having to lose seniority, without being outside the benefit and mission halo of the organization. It’s really quite unique.
We’ve talked about virtual integrated care and something that we began piloting several years ago in one of our divisions that we’re now piloting across five or six of our divisions. It allows us to take advantage of our scale and support our nursing staff members to work at the top of their game by taking what some might call the mundane or more routine activities off the plate of nurses who are ever-burdened on a daily basis with more and more to do.
We’re working this fall to initiate what we expect will be the nation’s largest and most comprehensive nursing residency program. We’re thinking about how to take the new grad nurse and create an experience that would hopefully keep them in the field. What healthcare across the country is facing is that a lot of new grads come to realize that, “Maybe this isn’t exactly what I thought it would be.” Some of our newer grads are becoming a little bit disillusioned. There’s more intensity, there’s pressures that maybe they didn’t fully realize going through their nursing training. And so our nursing residency, which will be a full-year program, is something very unique in the way that our chief nurse executive council has created and structured it. We’ll be rolling it out this fall with a plan for it to become a national offering for CommonSpirit.
An organization that has the scale of CommonSpirit has opportunities that other healthcare delivery systems will not have. One of my priorities is to prove that the largest healthcare delivery merger can create the success that was envisioned by the two boards and the two leaders who brought the organizations together. We can deliver high quality care, we can deliver greater patient engagement, we can deliver greater employee engagement and we can create innovations that not very many organizations have the opportunity to do.