Doctor-Turned-Businesswoman Cuts Costs at the U’s Hospital

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Earlier this month, Vivian Lee spoke at a health conference put on by Fortune, which may be surprising for students who only know her in an academic setting. Lee is a trilingual radiologist and Senior Vice President for Health Sciences at the U, as well as Dean of the School of Medicine. The list of her accomplishments doesn’t end there, however, as she also has an MBA and is the CEO of University of Utah Health Care.

According to Lee’s faculty profile, she manages four hospitals, 10 clinics, Huntsman Cancer Institute, the Moran Eye Center and five colleges at the U. She’s responsible for an entire health insurance plan, 1,330 physicians, and manages a budget of $3.3 billion.

Lee said her “business training has been very helpful to understand the challenges of healthcare as a business, in addition to thinking about health care from the perspective of a practicing physician, researcher and educator.”

Under her leadership, this year the U’s hospital system was ranked number one in the nation for university medical centers in quality, safety and accountability and was added to the US Olympic Committee’s National Medical Network. In 2015, the New York Times wrote that the system’s healthcare providers ranked as some of the best in the nation as far as patient satisfaction. They also covered Lee’s ability to cut costs in the system, which, according to the article, is very unusual.

Lee said that many medical centers don’t account for their costs in the same way that businesses do. Hospitals rarely record how much it costs to treat each patient in terms of supplies and time spent in the hospital for treatment and recovery.

The doctor-turned-businesswoman began applying knowledge from her MBA to the operation of the U’s system. They now use a tool called Value Driven Outcomes which tracks the cost of providing quality care for each patient. This includes calculating the cost of supplies and time spent in the emergency room, operating room and intensive care unit. It also takes into account labor costs for every health professional involved with each case. Lee found that not all hospital workers were being cost-efficient.

While she was surprised at her findings, Lee pointed out that “virtually all of our findings feel surprising for many of our physicians, because so few of us have had access to the quality and cost data at the individual patient level.” She said the U’s medical system is “one of the first systems in the country to provide this information to physicians.”

Lee uses her knowledge to cut costs at every level in the system. A New York Times articles from 2015 reported that most university hospital systems in this area of the country see costs increase about 2.9 percent every year while the U’s costs are falling at a rate of approximately 0.5 percent a year.

“For the factors under our control, we are still bending the cost curve,” said Lee. “What is challenging for us are costs for supplies and pharmaceuticals which have driven our overall costs higher than the previous trends.”

In cutting costs, Lee says they’ve been able to provide better outcomes for patients. Some of these savings help to reduce the high costs of training medical students, residents and fellows, which costs the U’s medical system millions of dollars each year.

With the money that Lee is saving the hospital they are able to provide more care to the underserved. Lee said, “Last year the University provided more than $125 million in charity and uncompensated care.”

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@eliseabril