RamaOnHealthcare December 15, 2022
Today, ROH talks with Robert Sundelius. Robert is a passionately curious healthcare executive and global board advisor with a profound dedication to business quality outcomes. He transforms strategic vision and operations to position healthcare organizations for growth in the platform and digital ecosystem economies. His experience in diverse businesses includes medical technology start-ups and multibillion-dollar health systems. As COO of Ascension Medical Group (MI Market), he drove state-wide transformation and governance strategy for 2,300+ providers producing $1.2B in gross revenue ($685M net) per year. The organization grew by 20% year-over-year while navigating operational changes, transformation to “One Ascension,” and the COVID-19 pandemic.
RamaOnHealthcare (ROH): In your opinion, what is needed to best improve and transform healthcare today?
Robert Sundelius (RS): It’s a great question, and one many are pursuing with significant investment. For example, according to a recent study by Silicon Valley Bank, over fifteen months (2021-Q1 2022), a record $105.6B of venture funding was invested in health sector companies in the U.S. and Europe. These investments in venture-funded startups are happening while many large, well-established health systems are struggling financially. In a recent briefing, Fitch Ratings warned it could take years for provider margins to recover and emphasized improving operating margins from reduced volume levels will require systems to make transformational changes to their business models. We’ve yet to find the right formula to improve healthcare in a sustainable way. Our metrics, including chronic disease trends, rising costs, medical bankruptcies, and provider burnout, are all moving in the wrong direction.
We’ve yet to find the right formula to improve healthcare in a sustainable way.
We need a longer view and the courage to amplify the growing voice of “we can and must do better.” We must move radically and decisively upstream from legacy systems built for sick care. We must dramatically reduce the need for sick care. Our vision must be genuinely bold and use all the talent and tools available to create a true health ecosystem. It must reduce incidents of non-communicable disease over generations and be expressly designed to keep people healthy. Not an easy journey, but also not impossible. This is the most critical focus we can have to reduce the stress on our over-burdened legacy systems and to transform true healthcare.
ROH: Where do you find your optimism in healthcare today?
RS: I find optimism in holding the value of a first name and spending time learning personal stories. It may sound soft, but I get energized when I spend time collaborating with others who are serving, building, and creating to transform healthcare. There are many heroes in the health industry sector, and their energy and commitment are infectious.
One of my most impactful experiences illustrating this was during the first wave of Covid-19. I was serving as COO of Ascension Medical Group (MI Market). Our market CEO tapped me to be our state’s Co-Incident Commander, facilitating our response for 16 hospitals and 28,000 team members across the state. In the first wave of Covid-19, we put in place a weekly process of remembrance for team members and family who had passed from Covid. I’ll never forget the impact of the many individual stories. Yes, healthcare is a business and should be run with financial stewardship. However, what drives me and where I find my optimism is in people. With heroes who give their best every day, the changes we need to transform our systems and structures seem impossible until they aren’t; miracles happen. I have no doubt that we will transform healthcare and create the future we all need.
I have no doubt that we will transform healthcare and create the future we all need.
ROH: What Healthcare Leadership skills do you look for in others?
RS: I look for leaders with both character and competency. A few attributes in each are critical as we navigate disruptive change. First, I look for emotional intelligence coupled with selfless courage. A leader who is genuinely self-aware and displays civility, integrity, grace, and ability to build trust at all levels; someone who is genuinely self-aware and accountable to others. Having this coupled with the courage first to serve others and to be decisive and relentless in pursuit of excellence is a potent mix.
…I look for emotional intelligence coupled with selfless courage…. the courage first to serve others and to be decisive and relentless in pursuit of excellence is a potent mix.
Next, I look for personal agility coupled with systems thinking. A leader who can point to a track record of being flexible, adaptive, and nimble; someone who has the intellectual acuity to think rapidly on multiple tracks and displays a genuine calm demeanor in disruption. They remain grounded and yet possess the ability to pivot quickly. These attributes, coupled with proven insight to understand (and guide) the workings of complex systems, are also a potent mix. These leaders align key influencers, steward resources, and facilitate fluid teams to achieve transformative change.
These leaders align key influencers, steward resources, and facilitate fluid teams to achieve transformative change.
Finally, I look for an inspirational vision coupled with acute focus. A leader creates broad ownership of vision through exceptional communication skills; a role model for repetition (communicate, communicate) in a way that clarifies the “Why”. They are role models in every action and interaction. Integrating this ability with the competency to be data-driven in decisions and having the discipline to maintain focus (financial, brand, quality, customer experience, talent, culture, etc.) is also a powerful combination.
…I look for an inspirational vision coupled with acute focus.
ROH: You mention a Holistic mindset – can you explain this and how it is applied?
RS: Perhaps overly simplified, but a holistic mindset is one that remains passionately curious and frequently asks: do we have the whole picture? Have we heard all the voices, and with whom should we collaborate? The cadence of change and transformation in healthcare is breathtaking. Many large health systems once believed the competition was the hospital across town, and internally, they had all the talent and tools needed to succeed. That’s a dangerous and debilitating posture in today’s world. It is critical to have a holistic mindset, casting a comprehensive vision of current realities and how they’re shifting.
The cadence of change and transformation in healthcare is breathtaking.
A holistic mindset also reflects a broader stewardship responsibility. Healthcare is also about being a valuable community citizen, stewarding our environment, and ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion in whom we serve and with whom we serve. The definitions of “success” and “bottom line” need to be more expansive and inclusive than ever before.
The definitions of “success” and “bottom line” need to be more expansive and inclusive than ever before.
ROH: Where do you foresee the potential within data, AI, robotics, tech, platforms, etc.?
RS: There is great potential in data, AI, robotics, tech, and digital platforms, and we’re just getting started. The key is getting the placement right. For example, a recent digital health investor survey (from GSR Ventures) reported the feedback of over 50 digital health VCs. They determined the best digital health sector was “AI/Machine Learning.” AI is a tool – like machine learning, robotics, and tech platforms – not a strategy or sector! If the positioning and application of these tools, provide a deeper understanding, engagement, and value to patients and providers, we’re on to something. I get cautious and skeptical when technology of any kind within healthcare creates distance in relationships, lacks clarity in the application, and is not directly linked to lower costs and better outcomes. Our strategy should be aligned with people’s health and reduce the need for sick care. Leveraging these tools should be directly tied to the same.
ROH: You wrote an article about your experience as a healthcare executive in Detroit responding to the first wave of COVID-19. In that article, you mentioned the “wisdom in belonging.” Can you explain that further?
RS: During COVID, we realized, potentially more than ever before in the history of humanity, how very connected we are. Not just our little neighborhood or our little town. Not just in our large city or state or via television or social media channels, and regardless of political or social views, everywhere, we are connected. We attempted to close borders to nations and states. We tried to create isolation and distance. We attempted to keep ourselves safe and secure. We acted the best we knew how with the information available. And yet, we have learned in ways no one could have ever imagined how we are connected.
The question is not if we will be dependent; the vital question is on whom we should depend. Whom should we trust? With whom should we partner as we find our way? Who can we learn with, find strength, gain a new perspective, and discover mutual benefits with? No isolation will help us understand the most important lessons of 2020. Isolation (individually, in an organization, or in society) will also keep us from creating the future we all desire. One of the most vital competencies in a leader today is navigating and fostering “connectedness.” In our wayfinding, we must stand with others and go with others. How we make decisions has tremendous implications for us and those we serve.
One of the most vital competencies in a leader today is navigating and fostering “connectedness.”
ROH: What advice would you have for those considering a career in healthcare today?
RS: Strap on your seatbelt! What we know today will be different next week and again next month. Stay passionately curious, authentically humble, and courageous. We need leaders who will help us steward a journey from where we are to where we need to go. We need digitalists, data scientists, those schooled in cognitive computing and social physics, and those gifted in agile strategy, transformation, and design. We also need those who passionately protect individual people who are always the center of what we do and why we do it. More than anything, we need those entering healthcare to continue the message “we can do better” and to help us find a way.
Our ultimate definition of winning is to reduce sick care and keep people healthy. We need passionate leaders in every competency and area of expertise to keep us moving in that direction. If we’re not lowering costs, improving prevention, increasing access, measurably reducing sick care, and improving human flourishing… we’re all still losing. I would encourage those considering a career in healthcare to join us. But don’t just enter the health sector to work “in” the system; join us to work “on” the system and help us transform the system. This is desperately needed – now more than ever.
If we’re not lowering costs, improving prevention, increasing access, measurably reducing sick care, and improving human flourishing… we’re all still losing.
About Robert Sundelius
Robert is Chair of the Board of Advisors for two global companies, provides advisory and consulting services to founders, boards, and c-suites, and is actively involved in building a true health ecosystem.
LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertsundelius/
Twitter is: https://twitter.com/rpsundelius