Strategize Your Revenue Recovery, ft. Jim Blazar, Chief Strategy Officer


With the onset of the COVID pandemic, many patients delayed their care. Now we’re in an environment where society is figuring out how to live with this disease and health systems are still learning and struggling to get patients back to receive the care they need. This is a multifold strategy.

Join Jim Blazar, EVP and Chief Strategy Officer at Hackensack Meridian Health, as he discusses how the intersection of strategy and culture are paramount to not only revenue recovery, but also re-activating patients, maximizing retention, and delivering the experiences both patients and employees deserve and should expect on a human level.

This conversation is brought to you by Actium Health in partnership with the Forum for Healthcare Strategists.

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Chris Hemphill

Podcast Host
Hello Healthcare

New Mexico Flag

Jim Blazar

Chief Strategy Officer
Hackensack Meridian Health

New Mexico

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Jim Blazar (00:00):
There’s a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch, and my philosophy with strategy’s always been that in addition to looking at the market, looking at what your competitors are doing, you really have to take a look inside and look at your team members, look at your leadership and see what they’re thinking and what they’re able to do.
Chris (00:28):
Hello Healthcare, really excited to be having a conversation with Jim Blazar, who is the EVP and chief strategy officer at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey. The reason for that excitement, there’s a lot of reasons, there’s a lot of reasons, but the focus of our conversation is going to be on COVID recovery strategy. We know that in our populations among the patients that we interact with, a lot of people have been deferring care for a lot of different reasons. We’re entering an environment where we’re figuring out as a society how to live with this disease, but also understanding and driving the confidence in getting people to come back, and that is a multifold strategy. One of the big reasons why I’m excited about this conversation is we’re looking at it from a strategic perspective.
There is, of course, the marketing angle, the communications angle of getting communications out there, but the conversation with Jim allows us to really reflect on a lot of the things that Hackensack focused on to say, “Okay, well, if we get these patients back, what type of experience are they going to have? How are we thinking about our own people, our staff, and what’s going on internally? So we’re going to have this opportunity to look at this broad conversation that’s not just on patient acquisition, but also on retention, but even more deeply, relating to our employees and patients on a very human level. With that, Jim’s perspectives come from multiple angles, not just EVP strategy at Hackensack, but also has served in leadership roles at Henry Ford Health System and the Cleveland Clinic. So with that very long introduction I gave you, Jim, I just really would like to hear about what’s driven you down this path into strategy and the type of impact that you’re focused on making as a result of these changes that you y’all have driven with COVID.
Jim Blazar (02:42):
Yeah. Thanks, Chris. It’s nice to be with you. There’s a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch. My philosophy with strategy has always been that in addition to looking at the market, looking at what your competitors are doing, you really have to take a look inside and look at your team members, look at your leadership and see what they’re, what they’re thinking and what they’re able to do. One of the things we noticed is that COVID really changed everything. For two years, we were all hunkered down. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hackensack Meridian, particularly Hackensack University Medical Center was one of the first places to really be hit with a surge. So whenever you were in the news and you were hearing about New York, you weren’t hearing about right across the river three Xs from downtown Manhattan, Hackensack University Medical Center got slammed.
So we’ve been in this for a long time, and then things would quiet down and then we’d have another surge, so the team members are really tired. The leadership’s tired, and as we thought about trying to bring people back for care, working with the finance people, working with the leadership, they’re looking at balance sheets, I’m looking at the team members. So the strategy had to really involve engaging the leadership, engaging frontline team members and making them, not making them, listening to them and getting them on board for whatever we do, that they were ready operationally to want to take care of people, and so we did a lot of listing. Also, with George Floyd, we did a lot of things of listing to understand, and really more so than ever we had before tuned into the people that worked for us, the frontline and everyone to say, “How are you feeling? What are you doing?” Lots of wellness programs, lots of things, so that when we did do a marketing strategy and it worked that they were ready, willing, able, and excited about bringing people back for care.
Chris (04:41):
That’s an extremely important point to bring up when you mentioned George Floyd. It makes me think about the recent tragedy in Buffalo, New York is, these are times that we should be checking in with our people and understanding that after an incident like that, personally, I am frozen and shell shocked, and it is extremely hard to return to work.
Jim Blazar (05:07):
Yeah, I totally agree. COVID, people were working from home there were so many different factors that I really do think the workforce has changed forever. Like everyone else in the country, we’re having some staffing shortages. We’re not going to do it by just paying people more money. If money’s an issue, we need to be market-driven, but the other issue is exactly what you just said, tuning into people, offering them flexibility, meeting them where they are, understanding where that’s coming from. We have lots of programs for wellness, et cetera, but the biggest thing we’ve done is we have a new person in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s not just in a silo. She’s part of our leadership team. Avonia Miller-Richardson’s terrific. Working with her, she and a lot of the work we did was integrated in all these strategies, so a lot of listening and a lot of trying to tune in to say, “What are the things we need to do to make everyone feel comfortable coming to work, and being able to take people that have gone through times like they’ve never seen before?”
Chris (06:16):
That really gives me something I want to dig into. Before we were on camera, before we started, you were talking about just when we’re talking about working at our absolute limits, when we talk about our clinicians, that’s two years of working at their absolute limits and counting, depending on when people are watching this video. I’m just really curious about what we’re talking about like relating to the people. What would you consider the essence of this COVID recovery strategy that you’re focused on?
Jim Blazar (06:50):
Yeah. It’s interesting, my marketing team, we got together and we were thinking about things that we could try to do. The chief nursing officer of our network came to me and she said, “When COVID first hit, there were clap outs.” There were people donating food. There were all these things, cheering on the frontline caregivers. They were all heroes, et cetera. As things have wore on, and unfortunately, things became much more political in everything that we did: vaccinate, don’t vaccinate, see people, don’t, all those types of things. She said, “What can we do for our frontline caregivers?” my marketing team came up with all these ideas and we ran it by her nursing console. If you really believe in what you say, they basically said, “We don’t like your marketing ideas,” and we said, “Well, what would work? What would make a difference?”
They really came back with this idea of, “Let the frontline caregivers tell you what they’ve gone through, how they’re feeling and let them just get it out, and in a really sincere, honest way.” We developed this program that we called UNMASKED, and we did an interview just like this, with no scripts, no prompting. We just asked caregivers from all across the network how they’re feeling, what they went through, what would they like to say to their colleagues and to the community? It was unbelievably healing. We did series of 10. We sent it out to all of our team members, all of our board members, and every week we came out with a new series. But what I heard back more than anything I’ve ever done in my career was, “They’re speaking for all of us.”
That’s how we felt. Those are the things, and what was interesting is one of the questions was, “Well, do you think that you’re a hero?” To a person, all of them said, “I had a job to do. I came in, I did it. I was afraid, my family, but we’re not heroes. We, we did what we were expected to do.” That UNMASKED series, we’ve taken not just for frontline caregivers, but everybody. I think it’s done some healing within our organization, and it’s really shown the team members that we want to listen, and we want to understand what they’re going through and what we can do coming out of this that’s different and makes them feel good about coming to work.
Chris (09:22):
So what I’m hearing then is there’s talk about, “Hey, what if we try this campaign, or try this type of method of outreach?” But when it came down to it was, “Well, what if we have a conversation directly from the folks that are responsible for care, the folks that are making this engine happen?” So I really see that as going on to two fronts, one on the external consumer end and the customers of Hackensack and on the internal side itself. You gave some insight on the internal impact. I’m curious about overall impact on the inside and the outside based on that campaign.
Jim Blazar (10:03):
No, that’s a great question. We’ve always been a market research-driven organization, so everything we do, we listen to our patient experience leaders. We have patient consoles that give us feedback about how we do inpatient ambulatory, et cetera. We’ve listened. We do market research. We do focus groups. We’ve never actually done them inside, so this is the first time that we really did a lot more listing internally, but externally we did the same thing and that helped gear us for what kind of messages and what we needed to say to people. But the key things were people wanted to feel that they were safe. People wanted honest information, and they really wanted to have the information in an easy, non-politicized way that they could trust. I think the thing that we found during COVID when we were giving out information on a regular basis, come back to that in a second, and then bringing people back, is that we put things on the website and we didn’t politicize them.
We just gave facts and people appreciated that. During COVID. When it first started, we started at a COVID update that in the height of COVID, we were sending out daily. Then, based on the amount of patients, sometimes three times a week, two times a week, and then it goes up and down based on what COVID’s doing in the community. But during the time that we were sending it out to our team members, giving them facts about what was going on. I started getting calls from people in the community that our team members were sharing that even with our competitors. So our trust level, as we’ve measured it went way up because we didn’t try to game anything, we tried to really just give facts, and so we’ve become a reliable source of information. I think that’s helped bring people back as well.
Chris (11:57):
Well, hey, just for anybody listening, we have a link to the videos in the show notes.
Jim Blazar (12:02):
Oh, good.
Chris (12:03):
I would like for you to, maybe you can pause, just to get some better context on what we’re talking about, maybe pause the podcast and take a look at one of the videos and get some context. They’re extremely well done, and you’ll see why that was at a level that people were willing to share that out and with their communities, like how often do we see people sharing our own materials? That’s a major point of impact there. So when we’re talking about it at like, I love the stories that I’m hearing from this. Just in general, I want to get a little bit deeper into the type of what was able to help drive that shift and how everything got the okay. But I want to start with what are the factors that y’all all got together and decided, “These are the factors that we’re going to use to say that this is has been successful versus not successful.” Was there any kind of metrics or guidelines or data that [inaudible 00:13:05]
Jim Blazar (13:04):
Yeah. Everything we do we measure, so that was a good question. What we did is we met with our clinical leaders and they were saying, “Hey, people have delayed mammograms. People have delayed pap smears. People have delayed lung cancer treatment. People have delayed referrals that they had for cardiac, for orthopedics, for things like that. So we prioritized those into which one of those delays would cause the most harm if people didn’t come in, and a lot of those were cancer screenings. The cancer center during COVID, treatment kept going there. There were not people that delayed treatment. What was happening is newly-diagnosed cases were dropping because people weren’t getting the screening. So we prioritized those and then gave the messages that we thought were important for people to come back for care, and we did a multifaceted campaign.
Some of the messages came from doctor’s letters to their patients directly. Some of them came from the organization, but what we did is we looked at the data and we saw the people that had delayed care or had referrals and didn’t follow up. we prioritized those by that care was that most important not to delay, and then other care that was important, but to bring back in, but wasn’t necessarily going to be life-threatening if we didn’t catch it on time. That’s how we decided what to do first, and then we measured the results. We had about 2.6 million encounters as a result of the campaign that we did and generated, I think it was 1.7 billion worth of additional revenue.
Chris (14:46):
Excellent. One thing I really admire about this, and I might have a little bit of a deeper question on it, is formulating, like prioritizing the response by the amount of need that people had, by the amount of harm that might be done should people not receive those communications. What were some of the factors that go into determining communication about this is more important or there’s more of a risk in communicating about this versus that. How did you come to that prioritization?
Jim Blazar (15:20):
Yeah, we’re really fortunate. We have a great, what we call clinical committee. It’s a multidisciplinary team of doctors and nurses that work in our network, and we asked them to prioritize for us. They did things, like I said, cancer. I’m not a clinician, and my marketing team isn’t so we didn’t say, “Oh, these would be the easiest or the best,” or the message we asked them to say, “What’s most important clinically?” And they’re the ones that help actually set the criteria, and the prioritization that my team worked with them on what would be the best messaging. Then, we tested those messages with consumers and research, and then we launched.
Chris (16:03):
To backtrack on having the right material to launch, on being able to have these conversations, again, that there was a process that you went through that involved listening to clinicians, listening to these people delivering care. They gave the feedback that, “Hey, this is the type of communication that we want to have.” In a lot of cases, if you give people the opportunity for the microphone, I think a lot of people in leadership and in a lot of organizations might be scared of what might come out of that. I’m curious about, for people that want to be able to drive the authentic conversations in their own organizations, what kind of barriers did you encounter to being able to have this kind of unadulterated voice coming out?
Jim Blazar (16:49):
Yeah, that’s a good question. What we’ve been through so much that I think the leadership team, because Avonia, part of her strategy was these listening to understand conversations that we had, and our leadership had gone through that and she prepared us for, “You’re going to hear things that are going to make you feel uncomfortable.” She goes, “No, I’m really telling you, you’re going to hear things that make you feel uncomfortable. Things that you want to say that doesn’t happen here,” and she was right. It was good that we listened. I think there was an awakening within the organization, and it really does start from the CEO, Bob Garrett, and on down.
He sincerely wants to make a difference for people that work in our organization. It’s not a soundbite, it’s not something to check off a list, he’s really serious about it, so that filtered down through our whole organization team. Our chief of nursing like that. I would say that our whole leadership team took it very seriously. We learned a lot, we reflected a lot, and I think we’re a better organization as a result, but you have to be willing and ready to hear things that you didn’t expect, or that it would be easy to say, “I don’t want to listen to that. We’ll just gloss over it.” You can’t do that. I think that the great resignation and all these staffing shortages, they reinforced over and over again that you have to take this stuff seriously.
Chris (18:28):
We’re learning as we go through great resignation, reshuffling and the types of conversations that you’re activating, that, of course being a radical change, the type of change that makes people uncomfortable. I’d love to hear what you’re learning about as a result of this campaign, what’s new, well, as a result of this entire effort, not just one campaign, but entire effort overall, and maybe how that impacts what you’ll be doing over the next five years or so. Just curious on how these learnings carry forward throughout.
Jim Blazar (19:02):
Yeah. The first thing we learned is, you really do want to hear from a diverse group of team members and hear all different perspectives and opinions and insights from them, and then you have to act on those. So we have huddles every day. There’s a lot of things for team member engagement, from support areas like mine, marketing, strategy, physician relations, all those areas. What we do is we ask people their opinions, but then we also ask them what would they do differently, and then how would we craft the messaging for that, and how would they know that there’s a difference? As an example, just in my area, not on the frontlines, but in my area, we’re going to come out with a new brand campaign next month.
We worked with our agency. We listened to a lot of people, and then I showed that to our team and they had a very strong reaction to it, and we asked for their feedback. Then I worked with the agency and we just showed them the revisions in that, and here’s what I heard that was really just encouraging. They didn’t start with, “It’s better,” they started with this, “You guys actually listened to us. We think that you heard us.” then they went on to say, We think that you’ve nailed it. We think that this is going to be really great,” but it was in the past, we do things and then we take the pieces that we want, and of course you can’t take everyone’s input, but I think we’re listening better and listening to really understand.
That’s Avonia’s phrase, “Listening to understand,” which is different than listening to understand different perspectives on the frontlines. We’re doing a lot of things to help some of the team members that are in support positions get additional education to become nurses. People wanted career paths. People wanted to make an impact, “I’ve been giving this idea for years. No one listened to me.” We’re really feeding back, showing them that the leadership and the team are following through on a lot of the ideas that they come up with, and then we celebrate the ideas. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, good job,” but to really call people out and talk about what their idea was and how we’re implementing it. So I think those are just some of the things we’re trying to do.
Chris (21:45):
Those are some really great examples. I especially love the fact that the answer that you gave me wasn’t, “Hey, this is set in stone. This is exactly what we’re going to be doing,” it’s, “We’re going to start the right kind of feedback loop, getting the feedback from the right people and celebrate, creating a space where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas on how to move ahead.” The one thing I want to tease out, and you mentioned your marketing team a lot, but we’ve been talking about a bunch of issues and areas that a marketer wouldn’t necessarily be able to directly influence. So I’m just curious for people who are on the marketing side, who are listening to this, what are your thoughts on the role that a marketer can play in helping the organization become more authentic?
Jim Blazar (22:32):
Yeah. Our profession for a long time, people have said marketing it’s the cups with the logos, it’s the advertising, the marketing team, it’s not like there’s strategy people and there are marketing people. My marketing team and the marketers everywhere, they’re strategists, and they need to be embedded in the senior leadership team across all of healthcare. I’m really fortunate from our network level. I’m part of that leadership team. Dory Klissas, who’s the chief marketing officer that works with me, she’s part of the senior leadership team.
Then as we go out in each one of our hospitals and each one of our larger ambulatory services, we’ve got marketing people that are sitting at the table with the leaders in those areas and what I’ve coached them on, and what they’re getting really good at is, they’re experts. They bring consumer perspectives. They bring data. They bring data from what’s the awareness level? What’s the perception level? Who’s perceived to be the best? So when we’re data-driven and they use their expertise to show why we should communicate in a certain way, they’re listened to, and they’re trusted. So I’d say that the experience that we’ve had is that marketing and strategy that become much more mainstream as part of the leadership and the leadership decisions at Hackensack Meridian Health.
Chris (24:09):
Excellent. So that sounds like a double call to me because it focuses on the aspects that marketers themselves may be able to focus on. But if there are people in other aspects of leadership that are listening to this, watching this, I think it opens the door because a lot of people might view marketing as just the logos and things like that. But it opens the door to think about, “Hey, these bolts are interfacing with the market. They’re listening to what’s being said, and let’s see how we can incorporate their input at that leadership level.”
Jim Blazar (24:40):
Exactly. We try to measure everything we do, so we bring that data and we’re showing where we’ve increased in market share, where did we increase the market share? So when you bring the data and you bring the facts and you bring ideas about how to turn that around, and then you ask for their input to do it jointly, I think you gain credibility.
Chris (24:58):
Excellent. Yeah.
Jim Blazar (25:00):
Chris, I’m sorry. One other thing I do want to add to that is, I think the thing I’m most proud of that’s helped us is we have a team that does internal communications as well. During COVID, we did this COVID newsletter, but there’s other internal communications that we’ve done throughout the last two years. One of the best ideas came from Michelle. Gartz, who’s our head of internal communications. Every single Monday, we have a leader list, and instead of giving everyone 5,000 things to do, here’s the five things leaders should think about this week, with links that are very short, five things, with a link to more information on how to do it. Some of it’s about mentoring, some of it’s about just things that need to be done for people to enroll in wellness plans or things like that. But this leader list, the open rate on it’s like 86%, and we measure open rates. We do all those types of things. So internal communications is as important as external communications.
Chris (26:00):
I feel like that’s a powerful theme out of this whole conversation too. Well, the one thing that I hope people can leave thinking about is by focusing on those internal communications, how does that naturally lead to improved external experience in terms of [inaudible 00:26:19].
Jim Blazar (26:19):
Totally agree.
Chris (26:19):
Jim Blazar (26:20):
Chris (26:21):
Well, Jim, this has been great. I think that a lot of people are going to watch this and latch on and want to communicate or learn more from you. I’m wondering if there’s any social media or anything that people should follow to get more details about-
Jim Blazar (26:39):
Yeah. People can just email me. You can include my email address and I’m happy to get back to anyone that wants more information.
Chris (26:46):
Okay. Well, I really appreciate that. Jim, again, a big thanks for coming in and talking with us, but even more thanks for drawing a line in the sand, listening to employees. One of the recent conversations we had was about the great reshuffling. It was another interview that we had with Alan Shoebridge, but these are some really powerful ideas to address that, and overall result in better experiences for our patients and consumers.
Jim Blazar (27:13):
Great. Great. Thank you.
Chris (27:15):
Thank you. Again, for all the folks listening, we hope that you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Jim. Keep us in mind on LinkedIn and YouTube. You can find more conversations with healthcare leaders there, and until we see you next time, hello.
Jim Blazar (27:34):
Thank you.
Speaker 3 (27:35):
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