El Camino Hospital's new CEO, Dan Woods, says he's still getting used to Silicon Valley after moving into Mountain View from Marietta, Georgia. Everything costs more, the patients are younger and there's an entrepreneurial and tech-centric spirit driving innovation in the world of health care.
But the longtime hospital executive says he hasn't lost sight of his top priorities while he adjusts. During an interview with the Voice last month, Woods said it remains a high priority to make sure hospitals provide top quality services and give patients easy and timely access to the tests, exams and treatment they need -- all without forcing costs skyward.
Woods joined El Camino in September after serving four years as president of WellStar Kennestone Regional Medical Center, the flagship campus of an 11-hospital system located in the suburbs of Atlanta. Under his leadership, the hospital invested heavily in both expansion and specialized treatments to attract more patients from the larger Cobb County area. Although the campus resided outside of the dense urban core of the region, Woods recalled it was the busiest hospital in the greater Atlanta area.
Woods decided to apply for the CEO position at El Camino earlier this year, and said he was "inspired" during the interview process by the hospital's board members, staff and physicians, all of whom were highly talented and passionate about the success of El Camino.
The lay of the land isn't entirely different for El Camino Hospital, which has taken on a similar expansion strategy in recent years. Board members and top hospital staff argue that the hospital's only path to staying solvent and remaining independent is to grow via satellite campuses and clinics as far away as San Jose. Woods said it's an inexact science trying to predict the future, but he agreed that serving more people is an important factor when negotiating with insurance carriers and employers in the region.
"It's really about reading the crystal ball and figuring out what's happening around the corner in terms of maintaining a hospital's independence and relevance in the hospital marketplace," he said.
But fiscal responsibility is only part of the equation for Woods, who already has some ideas aimed at making things easier for El Camino's patients. For example, Woods said the hospital could find ways to bring physicians across multiple disciplines together -- in the same room -- to expedite treatment that would normally take multiple appointments across several weeks. It might not sound like much, but it makes a big difference to patients awaiting something as severe as a cancer diagnosis. Trying to make his vision for health care pencil out is still a sticking point, he said, but it could mark a big improvement in the continuum of care at El Camino.
At the same time, Woods said it's incumbent on the hospital to make sure all the patients who leave El Camino feet like they had a good experience. For years, officials at WellStar hospitals, including Kennestone, made a conscious effort to improve how patients felt about their trip to the hospital through so-called service coaches, who would observe physicians and grade them on how well they interacted with their patients. Much of the advice included small tweaks in communication, but all the changes worked towards a larger goal of making sure physicians better understood their patients and the anxiety they might be going through during their visit. Survey results from 2013 showed a promising improvement in patient satisfaction compared to the prior year.
Looking back, Woods said the program wasn't exactly flawless. Non-clinicians were giving advice to clinicians on how to do their jobs, which could be problematic, and the role of "service coach" has more or less shifted to nurse managers in hospital units since then. Nevertheless, Woods emphasized that patient satisfaction ought to be a priority for hospitals.
"I think patients will come in and expect that they will get great care, but might not know if they got great care. But 100 percent of the patients know whether they had a great experience or not," Woods said.
Taking over the top leadership role at El Camino has a learning curve because the hospital's unusual governance structure. El Camino Healthcare District, a special tax district encompassing several North County cities, has five publicly elected board members that also serve on El Camino Hospital's corporate board, meaning meetings and big-ticket items are subject to California's open meeting laws and can't be conducted behind closed doors.
Although it wasn't exactly a parallel situation, Woods said he does have some experience working with public oversight. The Hospital Authority of Cobb County leases the land to Kennestone Hospital -- similar to the way the health care district leases Mountain View land to El Camino Hospital -- and had appointed board members that oversaw the hospital. Woods said he doesn't believe the hospital's obligation to the district residents needs to clash with its future financial strategy as a corporation, and that it could serve as a healthy system of checks and balances.
During Woods' first few months at El Camino, hospital and district board members have praised his leadership style and sincere personality. Health care district board member Julia Miller said Woods carries a calm presence and persona, and noted his ability to pinpoint what makes El Camino a "wonderful" place and what could use some more work. Miller said he also seems acutely aware of what it takes to keep El Camino Hospital independently operated amid the regional giants like Sutter Health and Kaiser.
"He's got a lot on his plate learning the area, learning the staff and learning the facility," she said. "And he's doing a bang-up job, I'm really thrilled."