Athens Regional Medical Center: James G. Thaw, President and Chief Executive Officer

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James-Thaw-thumbAthens Regional Medical Center (ARMC), a member of Athens Regional Health System (ARHS), is a 365-bed full-service institution located in Athens, Ga.

Considered the backbone of ARHS, ARMC serves a diverse patient population that is spread across 17 counties, consisting of rural, semi-rural, and urban communities and uninsured, underinsured, Medicare/Medicaid, and third-party payers. Athens itself is home to the University of Georgia, bringing even more diversity to ARMC’s patient base.

Embracing and nurturing change

James G. Thaw, president and chief executive officer of Athens Regional Health System, feels its part of his job to create a culture that is excited and enthusiastic about the impending changes in the healthcare industry.

“We try to bring a sense that change can be exciting and exhilarating here and not to harp on the unknowns,” he said. “And I think we’re doing that by engaging our partners and our employees and trying to integrate our medical staffs together with process improvement, care improvement, and evidence-based medicine.”

Thaw added, “At the same time, we’re reaching out to our community partners to try to further strengthen partnerships with them about how we can be more proactive in taking care of the more chronic needs of our patient population.”

He said the majority of Georgia’s population suffers from obesity. Currently, ARMC is partnering with the University of Georgia to confront the obesity epidemic and the related issues that come with it, such as diabetes.

Bringing platforms together

Beyond the obesity epidemic, ARMC, like other hospitals, is striving to meet the federal Meaningful Use standards.

Thaw said bringing in a CIO from Washington D.C. has been ARMC’s best strategic move yet. This CIO is guiding the organization through the process of Meaningful Use and helping it to achieve these standards as quickly as possible.

As a result, Thaw feels the organization is establishing a fairly solid IT foundation on the clinical information and hospital levels, even as it attempts to integrate ambulatory EMR into the package. ARMC is committed to fulfilling Meaningful Use and so far, has invested upwards of 50 percent of its capital budget in information technology and EMR.

“We want to achieve a totally integrated group of systems, since we’re not using one system, so that we can manage the patient population more seamlessly from all access points throughout the hospital,” Thaw said.

Focusing on waste

If anything keeps Thaw on edge, it’s the unknowns surrounding the multitude of reimbursement cuts that seem to be increasing every quarter.

“We’re an independent system so we do as well as we do through the treatment of our patients,” he explained, “so hearing some of the experts talk about 10 to 30 percent reductions is pretty daunting. Whatever healthcare reform holds for us, we’ll have to see how it impacts us from an economic standpoint.”

Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, opted out of a state-managed health-insurance exchange (HIE), which ARMC sees as unfortunate. Given the diversity of its payer mix, an HIE would have been positive for the organization economically.

Instead, ARMC has shifted its attention to eliminating waste from the hospital. Recently, the organization established a program that seeks to eliminate $25 million in waste over five years. It was kicked off with an initiative in one of the nursing units. This initiative seeks to engage partners and employees in job redesign and rework.

“We’ve been very encouraged by the receptivity of our medical staff about working with us to eliminate waste, following more evidence-based medicine, and working collaboratively both with our independent medical staff and our dependent medical staff in order to achieve positive outcomes,” Thaw said.

Integrating and recruiting physicians

No matter how much waste a hospital eliminates or how much technology it institutes, high-quality patient care is more dependent on the executive leadership engaging and working together with the medical staff, Thaw said, fully admitting that this is a simple principle, but one that depends on the hospital culture to achieve.

“We want the medical staff to work collaboratively with the leadership and board, and we’re trying to further reach out with credibility to the voluntary medical staff, showing them that we need to work together for the betterment of our community and our patient population,” he stated.

Thaw believes Athens Regional  has made significant headway with integrating physicians into the hospital culture, especially since bringing on Mark Ellison as president of the medical staff. Ellison shares Thaw’s vision of a united front.

As more physicians are integrated into the system, he hopes that it will be the easier to recruit new talent for ARMC.  Right now, the hospital is working to establish five residencies—internal medicine, family medicine, general surgery, OB/GYN, and the transitional year. When the program reaches full maturity, over 105 residents will be brought to ARMC.

“We have a primary-care need not only here in the Athens community, but in Georgia,” Thaw said. “I think Georgia ranks 44th in physicians per 1,000 population. The governor has done something wonderful and appropriated money through the Georgia Board of Regents to help new programs get started.

“We’re very grateful to them for sharing the vision about why we need to start educating physicians to stay here in Georgia. You can have all the medical students you want, but if they have to leave a state to do their residency, it’s not uncommon that that’s where they stay to do their private practice.”

Thaw is hoping that this program, along with ARMC’s other initiatives will position the hospital for the uncertainty of the next few years. “We can’t avoid this change,” he said. “If we can get ahead of it, I think we can help shape healthcare delivery during this revolutionary time, and I’d like to be part of that and I’d like the hospital industry to be part of that.”

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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