Henry Ford Health CEO Robert Riney joins Modern Healthcare to discuss his journey to becoming CEO, how the health system is tackling the industry’s larger economic challenges and using technology to address behavioral health needs.
Henry Ford Health CEO on the journey from security guard to C-suite
You took over for former President and CEO Wright Lassiter III about seven months ago. How has the transition gone?
The transition has gone extremely well. Part of it is because I have spent over four decades with Henry Ford Health. I was [Lassiter’s] chief operating officer and we worked hand-in-hand the whole time he was here. So it’s been an easy passing of the baton and seamless for our team members.
During those four decades you’ve been at Henry Ford Health, you’ve served in multiple roles—including as a security guard. How has the journey prepared you for the leadership role?
The security guard was an afternoon-shift role that I took when I was a student at Wayne State University. If you can picture this, I was charged at the age of 22 with overseeing the residents of the student nurses’ dormitory—making sure that they stayed in line and that the building was sound. I laugh now because [that’s how] I met my wife of 42 years, who was a student nurse at the dormitory at the time.
That was really my entryway into the organization.
I expected to spend a year or two at Henry Ford. But what I found was an organization that just ticked all my boxes. It’s very mission-oriented. It’s complex, and I like complexity. It’s a business, but it has a noble purpose and serves a community.
My career here has really been in thirds. The first third of my career professionally was in human resources, and I worked my way up to become the chief human resources officer. The second third was in operations. I always felt that operations was something I wanted to migrate to, so I did all sorts of operational roles across the system. And then this last third has been in executive roles, both as chief administrative officer, chief operating officer and now chief executive officer.
It’s been an unusual kind of journey, but one I wish happened to more people, quite frankly.
What can you say about the $2.5 billion redevelopment plan with Henry Ford Health, Michigan State University and the Detroit Pistons?
I know firsthand it’s been a multi-decade journey to get us to this point. We have incredible clinical talent.
But many of our buildings on the campus were designed 105 years ago. And while they’re great solid buildings, they don’t have the built-in efficiencies and knowledge that we have in modern design today.
So we have an opportunity to build a world-class medical center in the city of Detroit. We’re demonstrating the power of partnerships with private individuals, with private companies and with organizations.
The first phase is a brand-new hospital tower with new operating rooms, procedure rooms, emergency rooms. That is our mission-related work and something that Henry Ford is taking on by itself.
The second is all sorts of multi-income housing to build back a neighborhood that was once thriving and is positioned to thrive again. That’s in partnership with Tom Gores, [chairman and CEO of private equity firm] Platinum Equity and the Detroit Pistons [owned by Gores].
The third phase is a partnership with Michigan State University to bring in combined, world-class research between Henry Ford and Michigan State that is going to be targeted on eliminating disparate outcomes and treatment depending on what ZIP code you live in, your gender, your race and everything else.
Put all that together and it’s magnificent. It’s really one of the largest investments in the city of Detroit in decades.
How is Henry Ford tackling some of the ongoing industry challenges regarding inflation, staffing concerns and decreased patient volume?
Our patient volume is returning, and we’re continuing to grow market share, which is very exciting. But revenue is not in a position to keep pace with the inflation [rate] on talent and the inflation [rate] on supplies.
The math just doesn’t work. At the end of the day, no matter what you do, the math is just very challenging.
We’re not sitting around being a victim. [We’re figuring out] how we can grow in strategic ways. How can we continue to drive efficiency? Technology and digital solutions are an important part of that efficiency.
Getting patients to utilize online scheduling; to have a digital encounter when a digital encounter would more than satisfy what they need from the provider system; and to use tools to help them continue their health journey at home and stay connected to our caregivers are all things we know can ultimately lead to efficiency, and we’re doubling down on them.
What are some ways Henry Ford is using digital health to increase access to behavioral health in particular?
We’re offering primary visits with behavioral health specialists through digital and virtual means. If you think about behavioral health, there’s still an unfortunate stigma about coming into a clinic: “Who’s going to see me, and do I want that person to know that I’m accessing behavioral healthcare?” And as a society, we need to get past that for many reasons and embrace it as just a part of health.
But because that stigma still exists, we want to make sure that the access to digital appointments is there.
The cancellation rates of in-person behavioral health appointments versus virtual appointments are dramatically different. Virtual appointments are canceled [less often] because all the inconveniences of getting there have been eliminated.
Secondly—and maybe to the broader point—is we’re using our virtual connectivity to create education and follow-up support that can be fed through the electronic portal to individuals based on the specific challenges that they’re facing.
If it’s an adolescent, we [can] partner with the parents or the caregiver in that process through digital connectivity.
So we’re really at the beginning of what I think will be a dramatic opportunity to create 24/7 access [for behavioral health].
What’s the most important goal you’re trying to accomplish by the end of 2023?
Henry Ford Health has served a complex market for over 100 years. It stayed when others left, and it’s been able to be successful and grow.
People often ask: Why has it been able to create such sustainability? The simple answer is: It’s the culture. Our team members feel very dedicated to our mission.
So my very specific goal is as we grow—and we are going to grow—that we stay an intimate company, no matter how large we get.
[I want to be] a company that can see and touch every team member in terms of what’s important to them. [I want to cultivate] a true culture of belonging.
It’s been our secret sauce and we have every intention of continuing to nourish it.
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