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Telehealth, Preventative Care Help Drive Down Costs, Says Intermountain Healthcare Chief

Murray—When Dr. Marc Harrison took the reins as president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare last fall, he knew he was going to a hospital system with a good reputation, but he has still been pleased and impressed—not only with how it was when he got there, but how it’s progressed in the last six months, as well.

Speaking as part of an annual report to the community, Harrison said the system, which boasts 22 hospitals, 180 physician clinics, and nearly 6,000 employed or affiliated doctors and clinicians across two states, is tireless in its mission to deliver quality care at efficient prices.

“We continue to be quite dedicated to this mission, even though it has not always been financially great for us,” he said, noting the hospital was still owed a significant amount from the Affordable Care Act for its risk corridor. “Providing high-quality and affordable costs is always going to be the goal, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

That mission is as important in rural areas as it is urban, he said, and perhaps in some ways more so—in 20 of Utah’s 29 counties, SelectHealth insurance is the only exchange option residents have, he said. Statewide, 45 percent of Utahns seek care from Intermountain facilities, and that number jumps to 75 percent of residents over a lifetime, he said, and currently the system has 852,000 members. Given what a significant impact Intermountain has on communities, Harrison said, the system feels an obligation to look for ways to improve those areas as a whole.

“We want our communities to be vibrant—in addition to wanting to have low costs, we’d like our communities to be strong in other ways,” he said.

This includes making sure Intermountain facilities are as efficient and environmentally responsible as possible, he said. All new buildings achieve gold or silver LEED certification, and measures are being implemented across all facilities for recycling and conservation of water and energy.

Expanded telehealth offerings have also helped improve healthcare options for patients, particularly those who live rurally or find transportation to medical centers difficult, he said. Because the telehealth “visits” are done over video and the information is added to the patient’s file for their primary care physician to review, they remain effective and personal, said Harrison. Intermountain’s telehealth options are particularly popular with Millennials, he said, and help patients address minor concerns or decide whether they need to come for an in-person doctor visit.

“This is the future, and it’s not impersonal, because [patients] get the warmth. They are grateful for it,” he said. “It is allowing people to decide when, where and how they are seen.”

In more healthcare-centric ways of trying to improve community health, he said, Intermountain has a special focus on four areas where studies have showed Utah is struggling: diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and suicide, and prescription drug misuse. For example, he said, to combat prescription drug misuse, Intermountain has strived to make prescription drug disposal boxes easily available and provides Naloxone, a treatment for opioid overdoses that is typically expensive and available only by prescription, at a lower cost and without a prescription.

“We have system-wide goals around each,” Harrison said. “Our commitment to the community, our commitment to the future, tells us this is what we need to do.”

Since taking the helm, Harrison has made an effort to help Intermountain walk the walk, as well. The system has stopped offering sugared drinks or candy in its vending machines in favor of more healthful options.

“We know 40 to 50 percent of chronic diseases are based on diets, on what people eat,” he said, likening selling soda and candy to offering patients cigarettes in the hospital, but noting patients and visitors were still allowed to bring in whatever snacks they wanted. “It felt wrong to me, and to us, to provide things we knew were not good for them.”

Harrison identified a few areas where Intermountain would focus on improving over the next year, including infections at IV sites.

“I want you to know we know healthcare is always aspirational,” he said.