When the American College of Healthcare Executives met last year, its members had many of the standard concerns on their minds: improving medical staff relations, complying with new regulations, boosting operating income. Since then, the country and its healthcare organizations have changed, and the new priorities that have taken shape since Sept. 11 will be center stage at the ACHE's 45th annual congress next month in Chicago.
Workforce shortages, disaster preparedness and healthcare quality top the list of issues the ACHE will address as it meets at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, on the banks of the Chicago River and footsteps from Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile.
With registration already ahead of last year's attendance, the ACHE expects more than 4,000 people at its four-day event, starting March 17, says Thomas Dolan, the ACHE's president and chief executive officer.
"I think we've all been sobered by what's happened in the last year," Dolan says. "We've realized even more so how important healthcare is to the nation."
ACHE members contacted by Modern Healthcare agree that a reportedly growing nurse shortage-as well as a scarcity of other professionals including pharmacists and radiology technicians-will be one of the main issues on the minds of attendees.
"Staffing shortages come and go in phases, and we're at a high point of need right now," says Mark Neaman, CEO of Evanston (Ill.) Northwestern Healthcare and the ACHE's chairman-elect. Neaman, who will succeed ACHE Chairwoman Diane Peterson, a Houston-based healthcare consultant, on March 15, says it is more important than ever for the ACHE to help bolster the public's confidence in the national healthcare system.
"We need to make sure we have a code of ethics in this Enron-esque era that differentiates us as a true profession," Neaman says.
Healthcare quality also will receive attention at the meeting, as government reports and industry coalitions focus on the importance of reducing medical errors. The Leapfrog Group, a consortium of large healthcare purchasers urging hospitals to adopt patient-safety standards, has fueled interest in reforms to address the Institute of Medicine's charge last year that the healthcare industry is "plagued by a serious quality gap."
Many sessions will be dedicated to bioterrorism, staffing and quality. Also featured will be more historically typical sessions on financial and operational concerns.
"To be successful in today's environment, you have to be surgically disciplined," says Nathan Kaufman, senior vice president of healthcare strategy for Southfield, Mich.-based Superior Consultant Co. Kaufman, who advises hospitals and their medical staffs, will give a presentation describing the characteristics of peak-performing hospitals.
Investor-owned hospitals are outperforming their tax-exempt counterparts, Kaufman says, adding that one reason is that a volunteer board of directors finds it more difficult to impose fiscal discipline on a hospital or system.
Kaufman will advise hospital executives that their organizations "cannot be all things to all people," a tendency that he says can shift management's focus away from building a stable financial foundation.
The ACHE congress will encourage members to develop and support a new "local chapter" structure that will give executives an opportunity to participate in regional educational programs previously available only at a national level, Neaman says.
With 15 pilot programs testing the local chapter structure around the country, ACHE officials hope to facilitate more education and networking that doesn't require members to travel to infrequent, faraway meetings.
"The ACHE does have local chapters already, but I don't think they're nearly as strong as (the local chapters of) other organizations," observes Russell Guerin, senior vice president of 19-hospital Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. Guerin says stronger local chapters are a good idea but "should not supplant the need for our congress."
ACHE officials have no plans of replacing the congress with local chapter activities, but they are optimistic that the local groups will boost membership and improve service. "We're trying to see if we can grow membership at the local level and, ultimately, for the ACHE, by having very local contact with people rather than coming from Chicago," Neaman says.
Among new items on the ACHE's agenda this year is a program for new healthcare CEOs, which Dolan says will advance leadership in the field by educating executives who recently have assumed a lead role.
Other new programs include a conflict-management seminar, an "emotional intelligence" assessment and a guide to working with executive search consultants. In one special session, a panel of providers and other industry experts will address disaster preparedness. Jane Connorton, president of St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan, and Robert Wise, M.D., vice president of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, are among the participants.
Whether they attend to learn new strategies for revenue cycle management or how to recruit more nurses, some executives also view the meeting as a good opportunity to visit the Windy City.
"When I'm not taking classes, I look forward to the Chicago delicacies such as pizza, Italian beef sandwiches and mouth-watering steaks," Guerin says.