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Healthcare businesses look to cut costs, increase customer value

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Affordable healthcare isn’t only the concern of Congress and the Obama administration.

Local healthcare systems say that reducing costs to customers and improving customer experience are the two biggest issues facing the industry now and into the future, regardless of which way the political wind blows.

And on the education front, cost-controlling technologies and the demands of healthcare providers for a skilled workforce are pushing area colleges and universities to be more proactive in creating partnerships for continuing education in professions like nursing and adapt to workforce needs with new programs and offerings on their campuses.

For the Mayo Health System, looking to the future means a change in how healthcare services are delivered said Joe Kruse, chief administrative officer at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare. The system is moving to a population-based approach that tackles prevention and care for high-risk patients or those with chronic illnesses.

Kruse said that by identifying people at risk for developing high-cost medical conditions, focusing on prevention and working to increase the health of a population, the system is able to have better outcomes for patients and also lower costs.

“The idea is to move from a disease-focused approach to health-focused care,” he said.

Gundersen Health System is also looking at the issue of population-based care, said chief business development officer Pamela Maas. The system is engaging patients to take a more active role in their health and wellness, with programs like Minutes in Motion and community outreach and education.

But increasing the health of the regions’ populations isn’t the only way health systems are tackling medical costs. Direct cost controls are also being looked at.

At Gundersen, that means adopting lean processes to increase efficiency and avoid duplication of work or services. Maas said Gundersen is a fully-integrated health system where all levels of service from hospitals to pharmacies work and communicate together on a patient’s care.

One example of this was the system’s adoption of new technologies like electronic medical records that can be seen by any doctor in any Gundersen Health facility. Other examples of streamlining include worksite clinics, programs in schools and putting more control in patients’ and their families’ hands in terms of end-of-life and other care decisions.

In order to streamline and offer these technologies and new models of care to patients, healthcare systems are requiring more of their workforce. At both Winona State University and Southeast Technical College, officials say continuing education for nurses is becoming more important.

With a demand for more four-year nursing degrees, WSU and Southeast Tech have worked to partner in the region to provide those nurses. At Southeast Tech, nursing dean Nancee Wozny said the college is constantly reevaluating which programs are offered and making changes like a move to switch their nursing mobility program which focuses on the low-demand licensed practical nurse to a general associate’s degree program focused on preparing two-year nurses for continuing education.

“There is just a big push for nurses,” she said. “The big questions for us to solve are how to educate and push for advanced degree nurses. There is a going to be a huge need in the future for these changes.”

And new programs are being created and offered to provide skilled workers in needed areas. Wozny said the college added a medical lab technician program last fall to fill a need in the region for those graduates.

While reducing costs is a major focus of area health systems, customer experience is also a big challenge, and isn’t a mutually exclusive one, Maas said. Digital tools like an online customer care portal not only cut down on clinic and hospital costs, but also give patients more options and might save them time that would have been lost scheduling a doctor’s visit for minor questions or follow-up.

Kruze said that Mayo is also looking at trends and ways to make care more convenient and customer-focused. Along with digital and web-based technologies, Mayo currently has an intensive care unit cockpit used by the system to support its ICUs from one central hub.

“The cost issue is the number one concern for Mayo,” Kruze said. “But we also need to be reaching out and being more proactive in our customer’s care.”

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