Bellflower Medical Center: Mike Choo, CEO

by HCE Exchange on March 9, 2012

As financial pressures get stronger, many healthcare facilities or hospitals undergo drastic changes or shut their doors, while others call in experts. Mike Choo, chief executive officer of Bellflower Medical Center in Southern California, has particular expertise in turning around struggling hospitals, and in 2009, Bellflower hired him to turn around their organization.

“When I came on board, Bellflower needed improvements, not only financially, but also aesthetically, along with a huge need of equipment upgrades,” Choo said. “Some of our equipment was at least 15 years old or more.”

Demanding more for the hospital

Bellflower is a 144-bed acute-care hospital with an emergency room, medical/surgical suites, a behavioral-health unit, and labor and delivery services. It provides care to patients in Bellflower and surrounding areas, but faces steep competition. Bellflower is one community hospital in a concentrated area of numerous small cities with their own community hospitals. The hospital is one of four owned by Pacific Health Corporation.

During the past three years, Choo said Bellflower has overcome about 90 percent of the challenges it faced when he joined the executive team. He said the first step to a turnaround is to do a 30-day evaluation and strengthen the “inner core” of the hospital.

“The inner core at Bellflower was our leadership team, so that was the initial focus,” he said. “Building strong leaders radiates out to other areas of the hospital.”

The leadership staff had previously been micromanaged rather than having control over their departments, so Choo said he gave leaders back the authority to run their areas of expertise and be held accountable for the performance of those departments.

Choo inherited a staff with many years of service to the hospital. In fact, some of the physicians have been on staff for 40 or more years. Part of the turnaround was to foster the relationships among existing staff, not to start over with completely new employees.

“There is a camaraderie and collaboration among the staff here,” Choo said. “They have been together for so long and work closely together. Yes, they do battle at times, but it is out of their desire to make things better.”

Upgrading the hospital

After stabilizing the leadership team, Choo focused efforts on cosmetic and equipment upgrades. The hospital received a facelift with a newly remodeled E.R. area, cafeteria, re-vamped parking facility, front lobby, and nursing and conferencing areas, along with patient rooms. This facelift was accompanied by a new paint job throughout the hospital’s interior and exterior.

“The hospital looks like a very different facility from what it did two years ago,” Choo said.

The next challenge was upgrading equipment. Controlling costs is always at the top of any executive’s to-do list, but with creative bargaining and the support of a larger parent company, Choo was able to receive upgrades in technology. Bellflower has installed a new C-arm, anesthesia machines, and a nurse-call system. Bellflower is also purchasing a Stryker machine for laparoscopic surgery, among other equipment.

“If you truly need equipment to provide care to patients more efficiently, you have to get it,” Choo said. “In the past, the hospital would wait two or three years to get equipment they truly needed but was just waiting for the funds to pay for it. Our credit line isn’t the best, but we can make payments. You can talk about getting financed for six months to a year or make payments in that time and have the equipment.”

These enhancements have played a major role in turning around Bellflower’s fate and making the hospital more efficient. Focusing on employee satisfaction and the working environment has also carried over into patient care.

“With the power of our leaders, cosmetic upgrades, and new equipment, we have created a safe, comfortable environment for staff that translates into making patients and visitors feel comfortable as well,” Choo stated.

Looking toward the future

Fortunately for Choo, Bellflower had excellent patient safety and quality that allowed him to focus on the staff. The quality reputation has continued. According to Choo, Bellflower was evaluated by numerous surveys in 2010, including the Joint Commission, and received excellent results on them all.

Current patient-care initiatives include patient falls and infection prevention, wound care, diabetic care, and stroke treatment in the emergency room.

As with all facilities, Bellflower is looking to the future of reform and further cost- cutting. As a for-profit facility, Bellflower doesn’t have access to foundation grants or funds that many nonprofit facilities are able to raise. At the same time, about 60 percent of the hospital’s population is indigent. The hospital is a Patient Safety Net hospital that does provide some funding from the state.

“Healthcare needs drastic improvement,” Choo said. “It comes down to reimbursement. You can’t group all healthcare facilities into one group and then begin cutting. Private hospitals are cut to the bone. Some of the larger nonprofits have room to trim, but not everyone. An efficient discussion of healthcare needs to look at nonprofits, for-profits, hospitals with 100 beds or less, and other tiers.”

Choo does not agree that accountable-care organizations (ACOs) are the future of healthcare, but more a buzzword.

“Leaders need to analyze the data and evaluate reform based on their realm of healthcare and their capacity,” he stated. “Equipment and technology are not getting cheaper. We need to look at how we can stabilize, rather than continuing to decrease reimbursement.”

-by Patricia Chaney

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