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Madison Healthcare Leaders Give Students a Look at the Future of the Industry

by Brittney Mitchell Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dean François Ortalo-Magné moderated a discussion on April 25 between two Madison-based healthcare executives about leadership skills, decision making, and the challenges of running a large business.

Craig Samitt, the president and CEO of Dean Health Systems, and Frank Byrne, the president of St. Mary’s Hospital, both argued for increased integration among healthcare providers, hospitals, and insurance companies.

The two organizations have been partners for 101 years, but recently announced a merger. In April, SSM Health Care (which owns St. Mary’s Hospital) acquired Dean Health Systems, which owns the Dean Health Plan and insures 300,000 people in southern Wisconsin.

“I want to create the first organization nationally recognized for fixing healthcare,” Samitt said. “It is remarkable how much we have been able to accomplish as a virtually integrated system—imagine if we were perfectly integrated.”

Samitt and Byrne both agreed that the healthcare system in the United States has to work on cost, quality, and access to improve customer satisfaction.


“We have the most costly healthcare, and even [the healthcare system] second to us is 40% less costly. When you compare this against quality, we are probably 40th,” Samitt said.

The two panelists said they believe an answer exists, and preventative care is a key component of the solution.

"We spend too much on acute care after people are sick and not enough on prevention,” Byrne said. “Wisconsin has some of the lowest expenditures on public health.”

The challenge many healthcare organizations face today is managing the cost of the funding both disease treatment and prevention.

“We have to fund both systems for a time,” Byrne said. “We are going to have to keep taking care of people who are sick, but also fund the preventive side. This will lead to a future system in which hospitals must be of less importance.”

Both Samitt and Byrne are physicians who left practicing medicine to work on the business side of healthcare.

When Samitt went back to school to pursue his MBA, he was taken aback by the difference between his medical and business courses. As a medical student, he was taught to be individualistic, focusing on the patients and himself. Business school was about relying on others, Samitt said.

“My biggest takeaway from school was that you are only as good as the sum of the parts,” he said.

As a practicing physician in the 1990s at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Byrne witnessed the rapid transformation that was happening in healthcare, and when Parkview’s CEO asked him to be the vice president of medical affairs, Byrne jumped on it.

Bynre learned on the job, but also enrolled in a master’s program for executive leadership. Both men emphasized the value of learning.

Samitt said he evolved into the leader he is today because he hasn’t lost the natural curiosity that helped him as a student.

“I am always shamelessly stealing approaches from others, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “We learn a lot from everyone we interact with. We develop our leadership style by observing others and how they approach change.”

The panelists also imparted a bit of wisdom to the audience of MBA students, many of whom could be the next generation of healthcare leaders.

“The success of an organization has little to do with the leadership over time; it has much more to do with the leadership at the beginning of the process,” said Samitt. “Good leadership is about developing additional leaders in the organization who will continue to develop others going forward.”