UAB Health System: Dr. William Ferniany, CEO

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The UAB Health System operates the clinical enterprises for the University of Alabama, Birmingham Hospital and seven other entities including the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital. The system covers several family medicine training programs and clinics in cities throughout Alabama, and has affiliate hospitals in west Jefferson County and in the city of Montgomery. It is the largest academic medical center in the state with a nationally ranked cardiovascular center, an NCI designated comprehensive cancer center, the only adult level I trauma center in the state, and a level III neonatal intensive care unit. The UAB Health System is a $2.2 billion operation that was founded in 1996.

“We believe the UAB can be the preferred academic health center for the 21st century,” says Dr. William Ferniany, Chief Executive Officer of UAB Health System. “We’re relatively young; we’ve only been around since the 1940s as a medical school, and we have a strong culture of innovation.”

Innovation at All Levels

“Innovation is not something you can easily plan,” says Ferniany. “With traditional strategic planning, you analyze a lot of data. You come up with a strategy and everybody is given a book with the plan and you head in the same direction. That’s not what we’re doing here. We are basing our planning on sustaining and disruptive innovation. We may end up with twelve, thirteen, fourteen innovative pilot programs in key areas. Instead of everybody getting together and saying, ‘We want to do X,’ we will decide tjat we’re going to try these new things and we set up teams to see what works and what doesn’t.”

This approach seems to resonate well with UAB’s staff. Ferniany says he wants the organization to be the Southwest Airlines of academic health centers. He says it was the innovation—the willingness to try new things—that has made Southwest Airlines the preferred airline in the country. “They have good customer service. They are extremely efficient. They are very innovative and very safe, and their employees are very happy,” he says. “This is one of our goals, as well, to be the preferred employer in the Birmingham area.”

Last year the Health System started their Innovation Awareness.  Innovations recognized include the SMART training program to improve patient safety. The program was begun two years prior by a team at Baptist Health and focuses on the improvement of communication and teamwork between clinical care teams. SMART is now a standard part of general staff orientation.

Another program involves giving physicians timely and complete online access to their patient’s records in order to better understand the complete picture as they confer with their patients during visits.  A family support and bereavement program was also among the creative solutions to fulfilling patient needs that was recognized by the organization in 2009.

Anchored in Values

The UAB’s core values provide a solid platform for innovation.  “Own It,” says Ferniany.  “If you find a problem, don’t just pass it off, take care of it. If you see someone needing help, take care of it. It’s your problem.” Other values high on the UAB list include care and empathy, a focus on teamwork, and always doing the right thing.

It’s not just about doing the job, but how the job is done. Every employee in the organization is evaluated based on the organization’s core values. “We have them prominently displayed everywhere in the hospital for patients and families and employees. Everyone knows our values,” Ferniany says. “We have a strong program to recognize people who exhibit those values … for people who have been observed doing right. Other employees or managers or patients or families can call in and we’ll recognize an employee for exhibiting our values. It is very much a part of our culture.”

Preparing for Excellence in the 21st Century

Capital investments at UAB have gone into facilities and information technology in the last decade. In February, the organization is opening a state-of-the-art women’s and infants’ facility. The neonatal intensive care unit in the new facility provides private rooms where a mother can stay with her child rather than the typical nursery full of bassinets. In March, UAB  will also be opening a new radiation and oncology facility in the same facility.

“Clearly, our facilities are built to be patient first and patient friendly. They are very efficient buildings, not extraordinary, but they are very tasteful and functional,” says Ferniany. “They are not over the top in any way, and they are not shabby either. They are beautiful buildings. They are functional for the staff and functional for the patients. They have things you wouldn’t think of, like places for mothers to stay who have had premature infants. That is a wonderful thing.”

“UAB is committed to being the preferred academic health center for the 21st century and we’re committed to getting there through innovation,” says Ferniany. “That’s really the take away message about UAB. We’re all about being innovative in quality, being innovative in anything we do.”

-by T.M. Simmons

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