"Immersion Day" to Expose Hospital Board Members to Real Health Care for a Day - A Great Idea, but Why Should It Be News?

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Bock and Paulus describing an innovative program at Mission Health in Asheville, NC to expose health system board members to the real world of health care.(1)  The article was nice, but begged an important question: why was such a program news?

The Immersion Day Program

 The article asserted:

The U.S. health care industry has long been beset by seemingly intractable problems: incomplete and unequal access to care; perverse payment incentives; fragmented, uncoordinated care that threatens patient safety and wastes money; and much more.

So the hypothesis on which the program was based was:

These challenges are particularly vexing to the people who oversee or set policy for health care organizations. The disconnect between health care in its intimate, real-world setting and the distilled information delivered in the boardroom or policy discussions is a key barrier to responsive governance and policymaking. Sometimes seeing with new eyes can lead to transformational understanding

In particular, the two physician authors of the article noted

Yet until 2013, none of our lay board members had ever been afforded the opportunity to see the complexities of care delivery, except when they were patients, visited someone in the hospital, or watched a TV show like Grey’s Anatomy. Like most boards, we did our work in the boardroom. There, management and our four physician board members did our best to paint accurate pictures of our system’s complexity: the workflows and the choreography, the opportunities for error, the forces behind increasing costs, and the good derived from serving all patients regardless of ability to pay. We shared our struggles and successes using PowerPoint presentations, graphs, spreadsheets, and patient statements.

So Doctors Bock and Paulus came up with the idea of providing basically provided a one-day clinical immersion program to members of the hospital system's board of directors.

we created 'Immersion Day,' when board members and thought leaders could spend 9 to 12 hours in scrubs, behind the scenes, immersed in the nuances of care delivery.

Board members went from pre-operative care, to the operating room, to intesive care, to surgical wards to rounds with "nephrologists, pulmonologists, trauma surgeons, and hospitalists, finally to the emergency department.

The board members apparently greatly appreciated thr program:

Board members have called their Immersion Day 'eye-opening and endlessly fascinating,' 'unforgettable and humbling,' even 'the best-spent day of my life.' One said, 'I learned more about hospitals and health care from my 10 immersion hours than 6 years sitting on our board.' Our staff benefits, too: when a physician or nurse meets a board member in scrubs, the encounter builds trust and admiration in both directions. Word spreads. Caregivers express gratitude that the board is spending time seeing what they do; many had never previously met a board member. Physicians’ relationships with the board and management, though imperfect, are far better than they’ve been in years, despite ever-increasing challenges.

The authors are now trying to make the program available to journalists, and "state and federal policy makers."  Their conclusion was:

we’ve built a transformative experience that can guide our board. Deep immersion in the work of our health system has strengthened governance and engendered trust in our community, staff, and physicians, while elucidating health care for policymakers. After three years of Immersion Days, we cannot imagine being governed by a board that hasn’t seen so intimately how a health system works.

There are some obvious limitations to this article, which unfortunately were not addressed in the text.  The article was entirely impressionistic.  It presented no data about actual end results of immersion day, much less a comparison to any other kind of interevention.

Furthermore, the authors did not describe some important characteristics of their hospital system which may differentiate it from others.  In particular, the management of Mission Health is much less generic than that of other hospitals.  Half of the top hospital administrators have medical or nursing degrees.  The CEO of the hospital is a physician.  In fact, he was the second author of the article. Five of 21 directors (including the CEO) are physicians.   So it is not clear how this program would work in a hospital whose management is dominated by people with business backgrounds.

Why Is This News?

But the article begged the questions of why this is news? The article stated that there is a big "disconnect" between what is discussed in hospital board rooms, and the health care that goes on in hospitals day by day.  Furthermore, it stated that many hospital board members had no direct experience with health care.  Instead, the article described the non-physician board members, who were by far in the majority, as "educators, attorneys, manufacturers, investors, and bankers."  It did not say why the majority of people responsible for the governance of a health care organization had no direct familiarity with health care.  That does not seem to make sense.  So why did it take so long to try to give them such familiarity, and why would a program to do so be newsworthy? 

The article also failed to note that the hospital in which the immersion program was initiated actually had a board that was more familiar with health care that the typical hospital board.  Many hospital boards of trustees are completely dominated by "attorneys, manufacturers, investors, and bankers," that is, wealthy businesspeople without health care experience, and parenthetically probably without much familiarity with the context of the many less financially fortunate patients of their hospitals.  Mission Health at least had a few physicians on its board.

We have posted some vivid stories about the skewed natures of hospital boards before.  For example,
-  the board of IU Health (Indiana), dominated by top executives and board members of large for-profit corporations (look here).
-  the board of the Hospital for Special Surgery (New York), of whose 42 members, 23 had major relationships, often top executive positions or board memberships, just in large financial firms, including some which were responsible for the great recssion.
Other examples can be found here.

Hospital boards whose members are unfamiliar with health care may reflect hospital management that is similarly unfamiliar with health care. In fact, most hospitals and hospital systems, like most US health care organizations, are not led by health care professionals.  Instead, they are led by generic managers, following the dogmas of managerialism.

We have frequently posted about what we have called generic management, the manager's coup d'etat, and mission-hostile management. Managerialism wraps these concepts up into a single package.  The idea is that all organizations, including health care organizations, ought to be run people with generic management training and background, not necessarily by people with specific backgrounds or training in the organizations' areas of operation.  Thus, for example, hospitals ought to be run by MBAs, not doctors, nurses, or public health experts.  Furthermore, all organizations ought to be run according to the same basic principles of business management.  These principles in turn ought to be based on current neoliberal dogma, with the prime directive that short-term revenue is the primary goal.

Of course, if top hospital leaders do not perceive their own unfamiliarity with health care as a problem, they are unlikely to perceive their boards' unfamiliarity as a problem too.  So it really was news that at one hospital, the management thought it necessary to better educate their own board about what really goes on in hospitals outside board rooms and management suites.

At a really manageralist hospital, whose management is dominated by people with business backgrounds, which may lack any top managers who have any health care background, and whose board is dominated by wealthy businesspeople with backgrounds outside of health care, the management would likely not bother trying to improve their board members' or their own familiarity with health care.  Were they to do so for some reason, I hypothesize that an immersion day for board members would have little effect.  The apparent, but not clearly proven success of  "immersion day" at Mission Health may be due to the important presence of health care professionals in top management and on the board of trustees, but may not generalize to most other hospitals.

In fact, the current leadership of hospitals and other health care organizations almost entirely by generic managers, reporting to boards made up almost entirely of generic managers, defies common sense.  Although trying to give board members some rudimentary familiarity with the health care context, during one day of the year, is obviously better than nothing, it clearly is only a tiny bandage on a gaping wound.  When one hospital deploys such a bandage, it is news.  That most hospitals' managers and boards would not even think of deploying such measures is a scandal.

So as we have said endlessly,...  

We need far more light shined on who runs the health care system, using what practices, to what ends, for the benefits of whom.

True health care reform would enable transparent, honest, accountable governance and leadership that puts patients' and the public's health over ideology, self-interest, and self-enrichment.

1. Bock RW, Paulus RA. Immersion day - transforming governance and policy by putting on scrubs.  N Engl J Med 2016; 374: 1201-1203.  Link here