Health care CEO discusses challenges, importance of being a woman executive

NJTV News Business Correspondent Rhonda Schaffler sat down for a conversation with Amy Perry, CEO of the hospital division at Atlantic Health, to discuss the challenges and importance of being a women executive, and also Atlantic Health’s value-based care model.

Schaffler: We wanted to talk to you because you are part of a very interesting crowd, if you will. And that is there are very few women executives in health care. A recent study found that only 13 percent hold the CEO title, and that’s lower, in general, than other industries in terms of women in executive positions. Why is that, do you think?

Perry: Unfortunately, I do think it’s sort of true across many industries. Health care has been very slow in terms of having women at the top — women leadership. You know, I think it’s probably the same reason that it’s slow in other areas, kind of the traditional things that we know about, that women are taking care of kids, so they’re less likely to have the kind of time and do the things that are probably more assertive. Also there’s biases, unintentional biases, in the workforce. They’re not only in health care but other places. And I think that that has kind of slowed down women taking larger leadership roles.

Schaffler: But what’s interesting in health care is that there are more women than men that work in health care, so it’s different, say, in the financial industry, where you still have more men than women, and maybe you could say, “Well that’s why there’s not women advancing.” So the numbers are a little bit different in your industry. How did you break through some of those barriers and find an avenue to achieve?

Perry: First of all, you’re right. I do think it’s especially interesting in health care where you have 65 percent of the workforce — nurses and other clinical professionals — are women. I think that that’s breaking through when we see more women attending medical school, more women physicians. So the overall environment, the ecosystem in health care, is changing. You know, for me, personally, I was able because of a supportive spouse to lean in to opportunities, and I had child care support. I think that there’s certain fundamental things that kind of keep women from progressing more natural course to a man’s course. And then, of course, just having people allow opportunities. So for me, I think that my journey is not unlike many, but I think that a couple lucky breaks and having, you know, having a supportive husband, kids that stayed on track –there’s lots of things that could have thrown me off my course to where I’m at today.

Schaffler: It’s a great point, actually. In your career you spent a lot of time focusing on health care innovation. When you think about that now, what excites you most here in New Jersey when it comes to innovation?

Perry: So that’s actually why I came to Atlantic Health because Brian Gragnolati, who is the leader of Atlantic Health, really wanted to transform health care, and that’s why I get up every day. I’m very excited about changing the way that we deliver health care. As we all know, it’s a significant industry problem, economic problem, for the United States and we need to make health care more affordable. The only way to do that is transform the model in which we provide health care right now. In New Jersey, especially, we provide care in what we call a “fee-for-service” model. So essentially, somebody’s got to get sick, you got to treat them, so you can drop a bill so you can get paid. It’s a very vicious cycle in terms of bringing health care costs up. But what we’re trying to do is take more of a value-based payment. So what we’re saying is, “Listen. Give us part of the premium dollar. We’ll invest in keeping our patients well. We’ll spend the same amount of money, but we’ll keep patients well and have a higher quality of life and therefore bring the entire cost of health care down.” So at Atlantic Health, that’s where we’re focused right now. We call that leaning into value-based care.

Schaffler: It’s very patient-focused, but what about the people in New Jersey and the patients that don’t have access to health care? Why is that such a problem in today’s age?

Perry: It’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s so frustrating to watch. You know, people need access to reimbursement systems generally to get care, right? So they’re either part of the Medicare system, the Medicaid system, and now, maybe they’ve accessed health care on an exchange. Or maybe they’re not eligible for any of those programs and they’re completely uninsured. How do we provide access to that population? So, most of those people end up in emergency rooms, right? So through our care management programs, we try to wrap services around those patients that don’t have the normal access that you or I might have to a regular insurance plan, and then we connect them with community resources which do exist. There’s things like federally-qualified health centers that see patients on a sliding scale, or free; there’s community outreach services, social workers, faith-based communities that can help keep people well.

Schaffler: What’s the future of hospitals if the goal is to keep patients out of them — to keep them well?

Perry: By the way, a great question. If we do our jobs well we are going to reduce the need for acute care services significantly. So it is funny to work in an industry where we’re trying to put ourselves out of business, in some way, right? You know, we’re not going to cure every disease. We’re not going to stop every car accident, unfortunately. And so there will always be some sort of need for acute care, but, quite frankly, if we’re successful, much more will be done in the outpatient world, much more will be done in patients homes. We will empower our patients to take care of themselves.

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