The challenges today facing healthcare finance professionals, including patient finance professionals, are daunting. But the message from the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) is that they are all inherently solvable, provided leadership is strong.

Last week’s Healthcare Financial Management Association annual leadership conference in Las Vegas was held on the eve of the US Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but while interest was high on how the court would fall, most attendees had more immediate problems on their mind: reducing uncompensated care and bad debt, and increasing reimbursements and patient collections.

During conversations with healthcare finance professionals, it was rewarding to hear from many how important patient financial services is to their overall organization. Several exhibitors also mentioned that many of their projects in hospitals and healthcare organizations originally had been proposed or were being driven by PFS professionals.

The reason is not too surprising. Many of the biggest challenges in patient financial services — at least when it comes to  collections — stem from the fact that it is the last step in the workflow. And being at the end means that all the problems upstream are readily visible, from wrong diagnosis codes to incorrect patient telephone numbers.

As a result many patient finance professionals have no choice but to attempt to fix problems not of their making. This requires tremendous persistence, determination, and patience — which, according to incoming HFMA Chairman of the Board Ralph Lawson, are the qualities of a strong leader.

A large inukshuk, a marker employed by the Inuits in the Arctic Circle (via Wikipedia). Photo by Nicholas Perrault.

Leadership was a major theme at HFMA. Lawson, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the Baptist Health South Florida hospital system, made “Leadership Matters” the slogan for the conference. To symbolize leadership Lawson selected a graphic representation of an inukshuk, a marker that the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle construct to mark a trail or hunting ground. The inukshuk, he says, demonstrates “I care enough about my fellow man to take the time to mark the trail.”

In his speech to HFMA members, Lawson summed up the secret to leadership. “I don’t think you can be an effective leader if you don’t care about your fellow man,” he said. “Leadership is about making people feel. If you can make somebody feel like they’re important, if you can make them feel their job is important, and if you can make them feel you care about them, oh, they’ll follow you. They’ll follow you anywhere.”

Leadership in patient financial services is as important as any other department or function within a hospital. HFMA ANI devoted one of its extended sessions on the subject. Nathalie Gallet and Jim Devitt of Transworld Systems explained how becoming an effective leader is one of the major factors to boost employee morale and, by extension, patient satisfaction. Devitt’s presentation echoed Lawson’s speech, stressing the importance of making a connection with your staff, to make the intangible tangible.

Devitt recommends that you need to find the “why” for every member of your staff. What is the reason they come to work each day? What are they looking to get out of the experience? “Most people will work harder for their ‘why’ than for money,” he explains. The best way to help your staff identify their own personal “why” is to share your own, he says.

“Leadership by example is powerful,” says Lawson. Even in those moments when you think you’re off the clock.

“Leadership never gets a day off,” he says. “People watch you and they look at you all the time. They watch you and look at you when you talk to the waitress. They look at how you react when when you get good news and when you get bad news.”

With strong leadership, no problem is too large. “America thinks healthcare costs too much, and do you know what? America’s right,” Lawson says. It won’t be government that solves the problem with healthcare costs. “Who better than healthcare financial managers to solve this problem? Who better than you to lead this effort?”

The size and complexity of America’s healthcare problems are daunting, but not insurmountable if one knows how to tackle them. Lawson says that he tells his own leadership team at Baptist Health, “We’re going to solve this problem process by process, system by system, cost center by cost center, department by department, product line  by product line, hospital by hospital. You’ve got to break it down to bite-sized pieces.”

He compared it to running a marathon, of which Lawson has completed eight. “I don’t care how much you have trained when you go to the starting line, it’s intimidating. Every one of those marathons I have run the exact same way … step by step. But you got to take the first step and it has to be yours because no one can take it for you … Let’s join together and solve this problem step by step.”