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How Intermountain Elevates Engagement, Empowerment, and Leadership Development

Intermountain Healthcare is an integrated, not-for-profit system of 33 hospitals. Based in Utah, more than 41,000 caregivers serve communities throughout the region. Intermountain strives to transform healthcare by providing high-quality care at more affordable costs in pursuit of its mission: helping people live the healthiest lives possible. 

The Challenge: Supporting Caregivers During a Global Healthcare Crisis and Beyond

Intermountain is widely regarded as a leader in clinical quality improvement and efficient healthcare delivery. But when Marc Harrison, MD, became CEO in 2016, he took over a system that was struggling with workforce and patient engagement. As with many healthcare systems, these problems were particularly acute in nursing.

The arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020 challenged Intermountain to strengthen its commitment to the mission, make that mission operational, and take stock of what effective leadership truly means during a period of rapid change.

"Titles are off the table. It’s a time for all of us to be part of the solution. The key to that is to leverage the foundation around listening and learning from our teams what’s the issue." 

— Sue Robel, Intermountain Healthcare Senior Vice President, Clinical Operations, and Chief Nursing Executive 

The Solution: Investing in Healthcare Talent and Empowering Leaders to Listen—Then Take Action

While COVID-19 caused many organizations to put leadership development on hold, Intermountain Healthcare doubled down on these efforts. Early in the pandemic, Intermountain executives, in collaboration with Press Ganey, rolled out four key leadership behaviors—being mission obsessed, acting with courage, empowering each other, and driving results—to which they tied development and performance outcomes. 

Nursing was the test pilot for this new leadership pathway, developed with Press Ganey. Press Ganey‘s healthcare employee engagement survey had produced employee feedback that was “heartbreaking” to Sue Robel, Intermountain SVP, Clinical Operations, and Chief Nurse Executive. “Reading those comments was an aha moment for my team and me to say, ‘We have got to change this,’” she says. 

The team got to work. They implemented systemic cultural adjustments, including personnel changes and a sharpened focus on employees—particularly front-line workers. Leaders were given latitude to make their own decisions about how to attract new team members and retain staff within their units. “Leadership isn’t static. It is always evolving,” says Heather Brace, SVP and Chief People Officer at Intermountain. “Leaders have to be empowered to make the appropriate changes.” They also dedicated time to listen to their workforce to better understand the needs of individuals, giving workers a voice in the changes that would impact their day-to-day.  

“One of the things that we finally said is that everyone who works at Intermountain deserves to have a switched-on leader. This is not optional. People spend a lot of time and energy at work, even more than at home sometimes, and it’s wrong to tolerate inadequate, uncommitted leadership.”

— Marc Harrison, MD, Intermountain Healthcare CEO  

Intermountain’s leaders have taken steps to ensure that caregivers both feel the mission and see that mission in action. After all, employees make up the first community Intermountain serves—that is, they need to take care of employees so they may better take care of patients. Understanding that supporting employees is a critical step to improving patient experience, Intermountain developed several workforce-focused programs.  

Food security initiatives and home loan programs ensure that team members’ basic needs are met. Intermountain has also created more than 100 learning opportunities for caregivers, going beyond tuition reimbursement to include English-as-a-second-language courses, GEDs, medical terminology classes, and certification to become a nurse assistant or patient care technician as well as traditional degrees. For Intermountain Healthcare, investing in its caregivers is a way to develop “homegrown talent.” 

Meanwhile, transparent communications keep caregivers informed about not only what’s going on but also why decisions are made—creating trust in the moment and excitement about the future. 

“You can’t learn when you’re talking; you can learn only when you’re listening. It was so impactful for all of us to hear what was really going on in people’s lives, and then be able to make some really good changes to try to address those issues. Some of these staffing issues are very acute, very real. I think we were ready to listen in a way that we probably wouldn’t have been a couple of years ago.”

— Marc Harrison, MD, Intermountain Healthcare CEO  

The Results: Improved Care Access, Equity, and Affordability

Intermountain Healthcare has been growing in its quest to help more people access care more equitably and more affordably. 

This spate of growth is intended to spread Intermountain’s model of value-based care—i.e., high-quality care that people can afford. Money saved by keeping people out of the hospital is funneled into the communities that Intermountain serves to address social determinants of health, like food deserts and housing insecurity. “People do better from a health standpoint when they’re kept well, as opposed to just being cared for when they’re sick,” Dr. Harrison says, emphasizing his hopes that healthcare providers nationwide will hasten their adoption of value-based care and “start doing the right thing for our communities.” 

“Our mission is palpable. For me, as a leader, it has really brought out how much I care, and I need to be vulnerable sometimes and show that. The stuff we’re dealing with is tough, but it takes us back to why we’re here, the purpose we have every single day, and the impact.”

— Sue Robel, Intermountain Healthcare Senior Vice President, Clinical Operations, and Chief Nursing Executive 

To learn more about Intermountain's road to success, watch their presentation at NCC 2022

About the Author

Press Ganey invented the healthcare performance improvement movement over 35 years ago. Today it offers an integrated suite of solutions that address safety, clinical excellence, patient experience, and workforce engagement. The company works with more than 41,000 healthcare facilities in its mission to reduce patient suffering and enhance caregiver resilience to improve the overall safety, quality, and experience of care.

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