Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, one of the world’s most successful group practices, has a storied past, from its founder’s momentous observation linking smoking with lung cancer to pioneering surgeries, including an operation to separate conjoined twins. Today, the practice begun by five former Tulane University surgeons employs more than 1,000 physicians and has become a health system encompassing 25 owned and affiliated hospitals in Louisiana.
Ochsner President and CEO Warner Thomas, who will be speaking at the upcoming U.S. News Hospital of Tomorrow Conference, talked with U.S. News about Ochsner’s effort to rebuild health care in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the hospital system’s recent expansion and its growing investment in telemedicine and electronic ICU services. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Ochsner’s growth in recent years has been dramatic.
We’ve seen significant changes in our organization and the health care environment over the last five to 10 years. If you go back a decade ago, we had about 500 physicians in our clinic; this year we just hired our thousandth. … That at a time when New Orleans has been going through a period of rebirth and redevelopment. I think people have looked at Ochsner as the health care leader in this region and the one that has really helped to bring health care back to New Orleans.
To what extent was the decision to expand following Katrina based on opportunity versus community need?
If you look at when we started our major expansion back in 2006 by purchasing three hospitals from Tenet Healthcare, it was a time when New Orleans was not the vibrant place it is today. The chips were kind of down in 2005, 2006. But our board (we have a community board; they made decisions along with management) decided to double down on New Orleans and make sure health care was brought back in the right way … because we knew it was a cornerstone of the redevelopment of the city. I think it was the absolute right decision. That’s really what drove Ochsner to make the investment to buy those hospitals at a time when not a lot of people were making bets on New Orleans. It was a huge investment for us, but looking back, 10 years later, it was obviously a very good one.
When Katrina hit, New Orleans’ other major hospital, Charity, was a battered refuge for poor patients. Recently reopened as University Medical Center, it’s a state-of-the-art facility filled with technology and art. How will that affect Ochsner?
Ochsner Health System President and CEO Warner Thomas will speak at this year’s U.S. News Hospital of Tomorrow
Conference.Courtesy Ochsner Health System
I think Charity has an important mission and an important focus in the city. We have a very strong New Orleans presence, but we draw from a much broader regional and national [base]. In the past year we took care of patients from every parish in Louisiana, every state in the U.S. and 99 countries. … Ochsner has made New Orleans a health care destination for years and continues to do so today. They’re coming for services like transplants, heart care, cancer care, neurosciences, pediatrics.
What distinguishes Ochsner from Charity and other nearby hospitals?
We’ve made huge investments in people and programs to make sure we have the best talent, the best capabilities and the best access to services. We’ve worked very hard in the past 24 months on same-day access for all our patients. We ask every patient who calls us, “Do you need to be seen today?” Not a high percentage of them do, but, when they do, we do everything we can to get them in today. The ones that don’t are impressed that we ask them.
The Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic have created networks to help other hospitals improve their services and extend their brands. Does Ochsner have something similar?
It’s called the Ochsner Health Network. [Launched in June, the founding partners include the hospitals in the Ochsner system and St. Tammany Parish Hospital, Lafayette General Health, CHRISTUS Health Louisiana and Terrebonne General Medical Center.] Basically we’ve chosen these organizations to partner with us. … We’re collaborating on a number of different initiatives, including building a clinical data analytics capability among all our organizations.
You’ll be speaking at the Hospital of Tomorrow meeting on telemedicine. Can you talk about Ochsner’s program?
We have 42 hospitals on telemedicine today. This year I think we’re going to do about 17,000 telemedicine consults with other hospitals, providing stroke care, cardiac care, high-risk women’s services – among other capabilities that other hospitals may not have locally. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen over a 200 percent growth in our telemedicine consults. I think you’re going to see this continue to explode. … It’s another way to build relationships and take care of people farther from our organization but closer to home. We think local care is the best care. If we can help somebody stay closer to home and be cared for there, that’s ultimately our goal.
What about electronic ICU services?
We do have 24/7, 365-day virtual monitoring of our ICU patients. Our entire suite of ICUs in our facilities – nine units at seven hospitals totaling 193 beds – are remotely monitored. We have a telemedicine bunker that is based here in New Orleans. The folks in the telemedicine bunker are guiding the clinical team onsite with certain capabilities and specialties. We’re looking to bring those capabilities to other organizations as we do more outreach.