Adventist Health System: Donald Jernigan, President & CEO

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The Seventh Day Adventists founded Adventist Health System in 1973 to support their growing number of healthcare organizations. The group is now one of the largest not-for-profit systems in the United States, supporting 37 hospitals, 17 long-term care centers and 21 home health agencies in 12 states. The system employs a total of 50,000 individuals. “We estimate, through one form or another, that we take care of approximately 4 million people per year,” says Donald Jernigan, President and CEO.

Jernigan has been with the system for the expanse of his 28-year healthcare career. He became the CEO three years ago.

“We are a faith-based organization, honed and sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Our stated mission is to extend the healing ministry of Christ and we work very hard in cultivating what we see as the Christian values into our culture, our organization,” Jernigan says. “We put a higher priority on the actual patient care process itself, but that’s what we view as unique, our ownership and our sponsorship.”

Advancing Operations at the Point of Delivery

“I spend personally about 100 man hours per year sitting face-to-face across the table with my CEOs, discussing every aspect of the operation from the back office and the finances to the patient care and patient experience. I spend an intense amount of time,” says Jernigan.

At this size, many healthcare systems become mere holding companies, but Adventist continues to focus on improving operations for all of their hospitals. Thirty-five years in business means that the organization has standardized a number of processes that are directly tailored to and benefit the hospitals in their system. They’ve spent the years building a very good, automated supply chain system and a strong risk management program.

These efforts have helped them buck the financial trends in hospital operations. “Our balance sheet has actually strengthened significantly over the last couple of years, which is unusual, and I think that’s because of the systems we have built,” says Jernigan.

Within two years, every facility in the Adventist Health System will be clinically automated. “We have spent millions of dollars building in evidence based medicine into the order suites so that the physicians have it at their disposal,” says Jernigan. “This doesn’t mean they can’t opt out, but they have all of that discipline, all of that science, right at their fingertips.”

“But we really put the focus on the local community, the local hospital CEO, because frankly, the individual patient that walks into a hospital in Georgia only cares about what happens in Georgia. The system is only good as its strength in Georgia. What happens in a corporate office isn’t really the most important thing,” says Jernigan. “A system shouldn’t exist unless it makes a local hospital a lot stronger than it would be without the system.”

Preparing for the Healthcare World of Tomorrow

In the last decade, Adventist has put many of its capital dollars toward increasing the bed capacity at its hospitals. They’ve seen a strong growth in admissions in the last year which Jernigan attributes, at least in part, to capacity. “We try to stay on the cutting edge of technology, as well,” he says. “In the central Florida market we are a leader in robotics surgery and in non-invasive surgery. We’ve spent the money on technology to get to that place in leadership.”

Jernigan believes that clinical automation and having easy access to evidence based medicine is going to be crucial to tomorrow’s services. “You can use technology to produce a safer system of care, a more efficient system of care, that utilizes fewer and fewer resources,” he says.

His focus is on eliminating unnecessary admissions and working on programs that bundle care. Hospitalists programs are ideal, he says, and Adventist is working to make sure hospitalist programs in each hospital are being used to maximize benefit.

“We have to make sure the relationship between the community care physician and the hospitalist doing the in-patient care, or the intensivist doing the inpatient care, is really optimized so that you eliminate waste and the inappropriate use of specialists. We believe that is the world [of healthcare] that’s coming. You must have aligned physicians and automation.”

“If we’re going to have our national economy in order, we have to have a better health care system,” says Jernigan. “Our goal is to be a leader in that.”

-by T.M. Simmons

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