Healthcare providers have reason to enter the year with optimism, guarded though it may be. But even a half smile is an improvement over the past couple of years, when all signs pointed to peril.
The promising prospects are based on relief from the suffocating Balanced Budget Act of 1997, more favorable negotiations with managed-care plans and enhanced expectations that efficiency and productivity improvements are within grasp.
Yet there is potential trouble ahead. A weakening economy, bipartisan political bickering and the return of significantly higher healthcare inflation pose threats to the fiscal well-being of hospitals and health systems.
Our beat reporters' annual outlook offers a realistic road map of industry conditions. The investor-owned hospital sector is sitting pretty and appears poised to offer a financial lifesaver to floundering not-for-profit and public providers.
There is a pent-up demand for capital, but many hospitals looking to finance the purchase of expensive clinical equipment and information technology may face higher interest rates and tougher borrowing terms. The cost of complying with the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is a huge question mark.
And then there's the unfinished business in Washington. The Bush administration and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle will pontificate about patient rights, prescription drug benefits and the uninsured problem. But don't expect a lot of action in 2001. There's simply not enough consensus to get much done.
Rather than fret about the uncontrollable, healthcare managers should focus on fundamental organizational issues.
A good place to start is by forging an enriched physician strategy built on trust, cooperation and mutual respect. Another goal is to set a HIPAA compliance plan and use it as a springboard to make the organization more nimble and streamlined. A third attainment is implementing a system for tracking, analyzing and correcting medical errors.
Successfully zeroing in on these three targets can make the 2001 "Healthcare Odyssey" a successful venture.