Healing Juggernaut: Munson Healthcare tackles integration across its nine hospitals

Munson Healthcare wants to set a shining example for what rural healthcare can look like.

The healthcare system, which includes nine hospitals throughout northern Michigan, is currently in the midst of a major integration campaign. The integration will touch everything from IT to marketing, with the goal of improving care for patients, supporting managers and staff at community hospitals, and giving the entire northern Michigan region more of a voice in the legislation of healthcare policy.

According to Ed Ness, president and CEO for Munson Healthcare, the integration plan has been a long time coming. Munson has technically been a system of multiple hospitals since 1985, when Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort officially affiliated with Traverse City’s Munson Medical Center. In the years since, the list of affiliated hospitals has grown to include those in Cadillac, Charlevoix, Gaylord, Grayling, Kalkaska, Manistee and the Mackinac Straits Health System.

Munson itself has been a system hospital for “many years,” Ness said, with a relationship based on affiliation, so that the various entities would obtain various services from Munson based on their needs.

Seven years ago, regulatory and reimbursement issues made it more difficult for smaller hospitals to be independent, he said. “We as a system also thought that if we were going to prepare ourselves for the future healthcare environment, we needed to start thinking about how to best deliver healthcare to the 500,000 people that live in northern Michigan,” said Ness. “So we started having the hospitals come in as owned entities, and that’s the piece we’ve gotten up to now.”

With the hospitals across the Munson network becoming owned entities rather than just affiliate hospitals, Munson Healthcare is now in the process of making sure the entire system is operating in a more cohesive fashion. One piece of that equation is a new computer information system, which Ness says will help streamline care for patients who visit multiple hospitals throughout the Munson network.

If a patient’s primary care physician in Charlevoix sends them to Traverse City for a specific procedure or service, the new information system will help ensure “a smooth transition, rather than having the care be episodic in nature.”

“Whether a patient is in Charlevoix or Traverse City or Manistee or Grayling, their doctors will have access to a single medical record,” Ness said. “As they travel throughout the region, or go to the ER, all their records and their background information is there so that, one, there is no duplication of testing; two, they don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again; and three, wherever they are, their doctor can have access to all of their records.”

Another piece of the equation is branding. According to Dianne Michalek, Munson’s VP of marketing and corporate communications, the integration will reshape the way that Munson conveys its services and overall identity to patients and the general public.

The goal is to “help patients understand what to expect from Munson Healthcare,” Michalek said. “We want the experience you have at each location to feel like you are in a Munson Healthcare environment, and for that to actually mean something.”

The rebrand concept is brand new to Munson Healthcare, Michalek said.

“This is the first time in the history of our healthcare system that every entity and every facet of Munson Healthcare will be represented to patients and communities in the same way,” she said. “Every service line, no matter what we’re talking about, will all be under the same messaging, the same brand campaign, the same look and feel.”

Patient experience is a top priority for Munson’s integration plan, but it isn’t the only one. Munson is also implementing new strategies that will give individual hospital departments and managers more support from the top down. One key strategy is what Ness calls “the daily huddle.” Starting around 8 a.m. each morning, units or departments within each hospital will have meetings to discuss any problems they might be dealing with. That information gets passed up to local hospital leaders, who in turn relay it to Munson Healthcare leadership. At around 9 a.m., Munson executives and CEOs have their own huddles to discuss what is happening on the ground at individual hospitals.

“It’s a way that an issue can get from the front line of a hospital all the way up to senior leadership in an hour, and then be addressed,” Ness said.

Michalek says that the new huddle system enables Munson to be more responsive and agile in dealing with problems at its network hospitals. From product recalls to regulatory issues to capacity challenges, hospitals can communicate their challenges to the top level of the organization and get the support they need immediately.

Just recently, Otsego Memorial Hospital had a capacity issue and was running out of space for patients. Thanks to the daily huddle system, the hospital was able to pass that information up to Munson executives rapidly. Ultimately, Grayling Hospital was able to step in and lend a hand.

Ness sees this anecdote as a perfect example of how the integration will help each hospital, department, employee and patient within the Munson network. “It’s about working together to support each other, rather than having everyone be isolated and have to do it on their own,” he said.

That collaborative approach also means that Munson now has a louder chorus of voices to reach the ears of medical policymakers. As a board member for the Michigan Hospital Association, Ness advocates for rural healthcare systems like Munson to have a stronger role in setting federal Medicare rules, state budget and other legislative healthcare efforts. Often, urban hospital systems dominate these conversations because they have the numbers and the resources to make an impact. By building Munson into a single organization, rather than continuing to operate it as a cluster of affiliate hospitals, Ness thinks northern Michigan could become a voice for rural healthcare on both a state and national level.

“Rather than having seven or eight of us sending the same message separately, we can now say, ‘We serve 500,000 people in northern Michigan.’ That’s an important part of this state. We’re the largest employer in northern Michigan. And we need to have a seat at the table to set policy,’” Ness said. “I think we now can do that much better than we could before.”