HLTH22: HCA Healthcare believes its partnerships, transformation agenda will fend off inflation, labor shortages

With nearly three years of pandemic strain in the rearview and a stretch of supply and inflation woes in the forecast, HCA Healthcare CEO Sam Hazen said his large health system is relying on a long-term agenda of partnerships and technologic innovation as its roadmap through the storm.

“The healthcare industry at the highest level is incredibly fragmented, and that fragmentation hurts the country’s outcome with respect to patient outcomes, patient experience, efficiency, value—whatever you want to throw out there,” Hazen said Sunday evening during a HLTH stage interview. “And so when we went into COVID … one of the guiding principles was that we needed to partner with whomever to get through the pandemic because we had not experienced something at that level.”

Hazen acknowledged that his 185-hospital organization has been forced into “resiliency mode” after more than 400,000 COVID inpatients and other industry-wide issues that compounded with successive pandemic surges. Nursing labor shortages are proving to be “a supply chain shock in the healthcare system” while inflation poses a “real issue” for healthcare systems.

Those challenges won’t prevent HCA from pursuing its innovation and care transformation goals, he said while noting that technology advancements could play key roles in workforce development or labor efficiency. The “Holy Grail” of these internal efforts, Hazen said, is a “care transformation and innovation organization” HCA created to analyze its care delivery processes for patterns or other insights that can guide clinicians’ decisionmaking for certain patient populations.

Still, he said the organization has realized that it isn’t able to spot and solve every pain point without outside help.

“[Partnerships are] really appealing to me and really appealing to our enterprise because we think we can accelerate our agenda,” Hazen said. “They’re finding a lot of opportunities even at our company—and we’re pretty high-performing across most dimensions. But our processes are way too inconsistent, and I think that variation is the frustration that all of our patients have, our physicians have, we have.”  

HCA's recent slew of partnership announcements has aimed to tackle issues both inside and outside of its hospitals.

The system announced a research and development deal with Johnson & Johnson targeting early-stage lung cancer detection among Black patients, cardiovascular health research and joint nursing education programs. In August 2021, HCA made inroads with General Catalyst that would allow its portfolio health companies a chance to develop, pilot or scale their health tech offerings.

Also on the health equity front, HCA announced deals with the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association to identify inequities in maternal and cardiac care and outcomes.

“If there are outcomes that are outside the walls of our hospitals with respect to social issues,” Hazen said, “how do we partner with communities? How do we partner with the payers? How do we partner with nonprofit systems and really extend the reach of what we see in our facilities to the community … to help with some of these issues? That’s how we’re approaching it.”

Speaking to technologists in the HLTH audience, Hazen acknowledged that healthcare is well behind the technologic curve compared to other industries while warning against the disruptive, outside-in approaches that worked for those sectors.

He stressed the need for tech partners to “really understand the healthcare system” by embedding themselves within the people and processes of a hospital to see how a new technology could impact them. “That’s probably frustrated some of these innovators and tech companies in the past, even with us.

“We have too many people that have too many different opinions—physicians, nurses and so forth—that really slows down the interaction.” The key, he said, is for tech partners to be patient and target “early successes,” like a single-market pilot project, before scaling across the organization.

“If we can make the company a little bit smaller, regionalized, if you will, prove the concept and really deliver value for people who are connected to that, I think in that way it makes it easier to navigate the organization,” Hazen said. “But we are receptive, and we see opportunities for … bringing other organizations into ours and using our ‘laboratory’ facilities and services and so forth to interact with organizations that can really advance our agenda.”