UW News

January 7, 2010

American Hospital Association president calls for more efficient, integrated health care system

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Richard Umbdenstock, president, CEO and director of the American Hospital Association (AHA), says we need “a national framework for change” when it comes to U.S. health care reform.

Umbdenstock spoke to a packed lecture hall of UW medical students, residents, faculty and staff during a Grand Rounds presentation on health care reform held Dec. 2 in the Health Sciences Center and hosted by the UW Dept. of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine.

For all of its strengths, the U.S. health care system is today in need of “deep and lasting change,” Umbdenstock told the group, if we are to respond effectively to our nation’s changing economic, physical and social environments. The choices we make now — with clear vision and strong leadership — will set a new and lasting course for America’s health and health care that will take us far into the 21st century, he said.

“We need a much more efficient and integrated system — and we need to reallocate the money we already have,” he said. “We all pay for health care now, and we’ll pay for it after reform, but the question we must answer is what is the most efficient way to pay for it?”

Umbdenstock said U.S. hospitals are committed to an agenda for change that embraces the goals of the Institute of Medicine’s Six Aims for Improvement: care that is safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable, and patient-focused.

“We’re defining, measuring and reporting quality now,” he said. “It is Job No. 1. It is what we’re all about — quality and safety.”

The AHA has identified five essential elements of reform needed to achieve better health and better health care: focusing on wellness to improve individual and community health; providing care that is efficient, affordable and of the highest quality; arming patients and health care providers with the best information available; and ensuring that individuals, businesses, insurers and governments play a role in expanding coverage and paying for it.

“It’s an honor for me to be CEO of AHA and represent organizations like UW Medicine,” Umbdenstock said. “It is essential to have a really strong partnership at the national level, and it’s a significant ongoing challenge to keep such a national group of hospitals together.”

Umbdenstock’s career includes 11 years as an independent consultant for voluntary hospital governing boards in the United States and Canada. He previously served as executive vice president of Providence Health & Services, an integrated health care system that includes 27 hospitals, more than 35 non-acute facilities, physician clinics, and numerous other health, housing and educational services. The system serves communities in Alaska, Washington, Montana, Oregon and California.

So what should hospital and physician groups be doing better?

Umbdenstock said continued investment in research and development is critical.

“I understand the need to explore, to innovate, to create. But we have to look at other American sectors to see how they continue to invest in research and development,” he said. “The big challenge is the return on investment. How do we make the R&D process as efficient as possible?”

We also have to decide whether we are on the same team or different teams, he said, using the analogy of a doubles game of tennis.

“We have to decide what this partnership will look like. Is the opponent my doubles partner or the player on the other side of the net?”

While the number of Americans today without health insurance runs in the tens of millions, finding a way to bring health insurance to everyone will not solve all of our health care challenges, he said. To build a genuine and lasting system — a true framework for change — we must refocus and retool how health care is managed, delivered, paid for and experienced by patients and their families. And it will take not only the leadership of our government, but the perseverance of the individuals and institutions that comprise the health care field.

“We’re all in this together,” Umbdenstock said, “to help people at their most vulnerable point.”