Featured expert: Vontyna Smith, Ph.D.
A growing number of health care organizations are prioritizing centralization efforts in the face of growing demands, economic concerns, and labor shortages. As services reorganize into fewer specialized units, many clinical leaders are being asked to take on additional tasks or areas of the business that may be partially or entirely new to them.
For many leaders, the intricacy of working through the Pandora’s box they’ve just been asked to manage is a daunting prospect. For some, understanding the requirements and goals of the new responsibilities poses the greatest challenge. For others, learning the language of a new field or registry is a struggle. Regardless of individual circumstances, leaders know they require assistance but often aren’t sure of the scope of complexity, where to get the appropriate aid, or how to add more to their already-overflowing workload.
Vontyna Smith, Ph.D., now a director of customer success at Q-Centrix, found herself in similar situations more than once during her extensive career in the hospital setting. Her strategies to overcome the inherent challenges and become more effective in her role allowed her and her team to deliver considerable benefits to their department and the larger health system. Reflecting on her approach then and how her opinions have developed since working with partners in similar situations, Vontyna stresses the importance of three core lessons leaders should apply to tackle the “new normal.”
Business as usual – Vontyna’s story:
As an Oncology Research Department leader at one of the top-ranked hospitals in the world, Vontyna was already managing several departments. From therapeutic trials across solid tumor and hematological malignancies disease sites to industry, cooperative group, and grant-funded trials, she quickly became an expert in oncology research management. She was also responsible for managing a hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes registry.
On what began as a typical day, Vontyna was called into her administrator’s office and was asked to manage yet another division – the tumor registry.
“‘How hard could it be’ was my initial thought,” Vontyna remembers. “I was already working with three related departments and thought my experience would serve me well in this new registry too.”
However, her thought process quickly changed after understanding how different this team’s work was from her experience.
“As I spent time with this group, I realized there was something unique about their work. They used unfamiliar terminology, worked with case types I didn’t know, and possessed accreditations I had never even heard of.”
To make matters worse, Vontyna received a call from the state’s Department of Health shortly after her appointment to the tumor registry, informing her that her new division had a substantial backlog of cases that impacted public data. As a result of the backlog, her newest department had also lost its accreditation.
While the situation facing Vontyna was formidable, her department eventually worked through its backlog and brought considerable benefits to the health system through tremendous work, learning, and leveraging of the right partnerships.
Three lessons to apply when changing roles in health care:
While Vontyna’s situation is extreme, the lessons she learned apply to any health care leader stepping into new responsibilities for which they may not have much experience.
1. Don’t be afraid to look for internal allies and external partnerships
When entering a new position, leaders may feel significant pressure to create and implement solutions themselves. Partnerships are often challenging to justify in a facility committed to centralization, further adding to the strain.
However, allies and partners are often the best resources for tackling the challenges of entering unfamiliar territory. Whether support can be garnered from the existing team and others within the organization, or it becomes necessary to recruit an external partner, leveraging the skillsets and experience of others will give leaders time to ramp up their understanding and expertise.
Questions to ask:
- Who within my organization has a greater understanding of my subject matter or a component of the work I need to accomplish?
- How can I ensure those individuals have the time and the inclination to help my team?
- What do we need help with because we lack the resources or the expertise as an organization to handle it appropriately?
- How can I best leverage the value of these partnerships to ensure they are worthwhile?
- How can I support the partners I already have?
“Realize that no matter how quickly you learn the material, there will be things you probably don’t know about the service line that could significantly impact workflow and outcomes. For example, one missing code in a sea of unfamiliar options can lead to thousands of additional backlogged cases you didn’t even know about. Having resources on board with expertise in the field to help you navigate through this is critical. However, outsourcing is not always looked at favorably by hospitals or health systems. Advocating for an external partnership was a huge deal at the time, but we would never have reached our goals without the support of the right partners. Our team knew this, which allowed us the opportunity to open ourselves to the external partnerships we needed.”
Vontyna is not alone in this recommendation. As operational centralization has increased the strain on health care workers, external partnerships have already helped hospitals across the country improve their quality of care, reduce costs, and lead to the ongoing success of those involved. Often, the total value of these partnerships is realized through years of excellent work and continual improvement.
2. Determine the value of the new responsibility in the broader health system or hospital
When entering a new position, leaders should explore the value of their new service line, department, or registry with an open mind. In a hospital setting, that means understanding its place in the greater health system and the revenue potential.
Questions to ask:
- How does my department save our facility money?
- How does it, or will it generate revenue?
- How does my department impact patient care?
- What is the value of our work, both in the short- and long-term?
- What opportunities does our work afford for the organization?
- Grant money, further accreditations, and prestige to attract potential candidates are just a few potential answers.
This understanding of the department’s role will serve the team well, especially in discussions with upper-level leaders as they seek to explain the value of their work and the resources they need to succeed. The answers to the above questions will enable better communication between staff, managers, and c-suite level executives, allowing the latter to sign off on essential requests.
“To hospital leadership, registries in some instances can be viewed as just a line item on a budget sheet that provides little to no value to their organization, especially if they have a backlog. However, after cleaning up our clinical data management practices, I saw the tumor registry become a driving force for continuous improvement. The benefits of the work our team accomplished are still impacting the hospital today. By leveraging the data within the registry, the hospital opened a new oncology building, positioning them to expand offerings further, pursue innovative clinical trials, and develop improved marketing initiatives. While these impacts weren’t visible when I first assumed the role, they’ve since exposed themselves in amazing ways.”
3. Prioritize an action plan based on the predicted impact
Vontyna stresses the importance of looking for the issues and solutions that, if prioritized, would contribute the most to ongoing success. Focusing on the tasks needing attention first makes an overwhelming workload more manageable and allows leaders to cover more ground quickly. Leaders should ask their teams about their biggest challenges and learn from them.
Questions to ask:
- How do I educate myself as a department leader to understand what I need first?
- What is the most urgent problem facing me that needs to be addressed before all others?
- How do I communicate that need to my team and leadership?
“The issues with the state were the first step for us. Not only was our reputation at stake, but the potential of being fined millions of dollars was enough to warrant the attention of my executives. Armed with this knowledge, I got approval to hire additional team members to help work through the backlog.”
When Vontyna couldn’t find the talent she needed due to the specialty of cases, she quickly determined the need for an external partner to help them abstract efficiently and work through the extensive backlog. Not only did her team require certified professionals who were extremely hard to come by, but other departments with more enticing benefits narrowed the candidate pool even further. This reality led to the insights outlined in lesson one, completing the cyclical nature of the transformative change needed for successful centralization.
Succeeding in a new role: Lessons learned.
Whether placed in a new role or simply looking for ways to drive efficiency and improvement, health care leaders can use the lessons presented by Vontyna to assist them in any challenging new endeavor.
Determining the value of a department or registry to patient care, the facility’s financial health, and the prestige of the broader organization will be critical to acquiring the necessary resources. That work will also give new team members an essential perspective from which to operate and make decisions moving forward.
For even seasoned professionals, it can be tough to determine the most critical obstacles to success in a new field. When in doubt, rely on the existing team for guidance and prioritize the solutions that will deliver the most significant net gains.
And finally, never underestimate the value of the right partnerships. Every new collaboration is an opportunity to expand your capabilities, educate staff, and demonstrate high reliability. For Vontyna and thousands of other hospital staff, following the lessons outlined above have allowed them to position their organizations to meet competitive challenges and develop new strategies/programs that impact the future of their facility for years to come.