Moving healthcare forward: The power of collaboration 

Bridging traditional rivalry, harnessing technology and empowering relationships pave the way to achieve synergistic partnerships.

This article is part of the November 2023 COVERstory.

More than ever before, healthcare organizations are coming together in partnerships and collaborative efforts. 

While competition is still the rule among consolidating provider organizations, there have been a rising number of initiatives that have brought together traditional competitors or resulted in new alliances. 

Providers have been collegial for years around causes or industrywide initiatives. But a growing number of senior executives see the need for more collaborative efforts, particularly around technology that can potentially improve processes and efficiency. 

Senior executives are increasingly factoring in collaborations and partnerships into their strategic plans and paying more attention on finding partners that can benefit in symbiotic relationships. 

This growing movement toward collaboration was identified by many CEOs interviewed by Health Data Management in its examination of the current landscape of healthcare as viewed by top executives at health systems and technology and service providers. The technology providers in this report are among some of the highest-rated by KLAS Research during the past year. 

Partnering with technology partners 

Healthcare organizations and technology providers are seeing value in working together to improve technology and enable better implementation efforts in the field.  

Customer partnerships enable MEDITECH to find out “how much better we can explore the customer experience and ensure that we're doing the right thing by customer engagement,” says Helen Waters, chief operating officer at the technology provider. “Customers are the reason, in many respects, that we are where we are today in terms of their success with our platform.” 

The value, Waters says, comes from gaining insight into the experience of users of its technology in care settings.  

“The best ideas come from the people who are closest to where the challenges are and where they see opportunity,” she explains. “There is nothing more important to us than making a very strong statement to the (clinical) staff that your ideas matter. We want to hear directly from people who are close to where a lot of the action takes place every day.” 

Healthcare organizations are looking for partnerships with technology providers that are meaningful and deliver tangible results, not just falling for marketing verbiage from companies, says Adam Gale, CEO of KLAS. He described a recent encounter with a provider CEO who was pitched with a partnership. 

“The company told him, ‘Look, you are a key partner for us.’ And the CEO of this health system said, ‘What does that mean? What does it mean that we're a key partner for you?’ We need to have a thoughtful, meaningful approach as we talk about these partnerships, because it's so easy to say, ‘We're partners, you're special.’ But to really do that, it does take some fresh eyes, and it takes a real plan,” Gale says. 

Partnerships will increase in value as technology products feature capabilities such as artificial intelligence, generative AI tools, advanced search capabilities and precision medicine information. While these are buzz words subject to hyperbole, efficiently deploying them in healthcare settings will require close collaboration between providers and tech developers. 

“The labor shortage is real. People are not going to be able to throw bodies at problems anymore,” Waters says. “Technology companies like MEDITECH and other innovators need to figure out ways to deliver in take advantage of technology that will advance the efficiencies of healthcare organizations.” 

Jointly addressing financial pressures 

In addition to development benefits, provider organizations are looking for partnerships with technology companies to provide relief from the financial pressures they face. 

“Galen has just been a culture of collaboration, creativity, working with our clients to solve big problems and to save them a lot of money,” contends Steve Brewer, CEO of Galen Healthcare Solutions. “They partner with us on these projects, and they save millions and millions of dollars. So our clients are looking to us more than ever, asking how we can cut costs out of the equation for them.” 

Brewer delineates between relationships that are merely contractual from those that involve true close collaboration between Galen and partnering healthcare organizations. 

“We certainly have projects that are just transactional – we're hired, we come in, we do something, and we go away,” he says, admitting that “you can overuse the term partner. But … we truly are partnering to solve some really big issues. And … where we do best is where the clients have us as an extension of their team, trust us, enable us to help them.” 

Elements of strong partnerships 

For provider-tech company relationships to flourish, they must be reflective of a company’s internal culture, and they require extensive direct communication that builds deep commitment to achieving a common goal, contends B.J. Schaknowski, CEO of symplr. 

Getting past marketing hype is important, because providers are wary of it and can sniff out insincere promises of collaboration, says Adam Gale, CEO of KLAS Research.  

“If your goal is to just sell software, you can do that as you put (deals) together, but if your goal is an outcome, then you become a partner,” Gale says. “Because then, you're going to tell the truth, you're going to make sure your site is ready to go, you're going to work to that outcome.” 

Successful partnerships require building trust, having a strong company culture and having a true focus on the success of the healthcare organizations with which you partner, says Tom Walsh, head of tw-Security. “By taking (security) off of their plates and allowing them to truly focus on their jobs and providing them with operationalized information security and data privacy, we've actually made their team stronger,” he adds. 

Partnerships within providers’ community 

Providers are also taking a fresh look at growing collaborative efforts within the communities they serve. This reaches beyond the mindset of just acquiring assets to cobble together an “integrated delivery system” – in the value-based care world, it involves working with community organizations that can address the broader health needs that are evident but challenging to meet. 

In some cases, the initial collaboration comes from the recognition that working together will trump ongoing competition, says Tom Mee, CEO at North Country Health, a system based in Bethlehem, N.H. 

“We're a healthcare system that is made up entirely of entities that were competitors just six years ago, and our founders had the foresight to recognize that collaboration was going to be more successful than competition,” Mee says. “And we've seen massive improvements ... and success as a result of that.” 

Beyond forming linkages with other providers, it’s also important to stay connected to the communities being served, says Tom Kleinhanzl, CEO of Frederick (Md.) Health, an integrated delivery system. 

“You’ve got to be connected to your community; you got to have a breadth of services and do it really well – you can't just suggest you have high quality, you have to deliver on the … high expectations for the community,” Kleinhanzl says. “We have to do things at lower cost and higher quality i.e. value. And we need to do that within the community we live in. You have to do things well. And that's why that notion of partnership plays in here; you’ve got to pick your partners, you’ve got to think about who you're going to dance with, and make sure you're servicing the community really, really well.” 

Partnerships need to extend to non-obvious partners, all in the furtherance of ensuring collaborations that improve community health, contends David Cole, MD, president of the Medical University of South Carolina. 

“We can partner with local communities and start having a longitudinal impact on healthcare, healthcare access, healthcare outcomes, healthcare equity,” Cole says. “Those create unique challenges and opportunities for us, and we're in a lot of transition, a lot of transformation because of that level of growth. It's provided a lot of purpose and momentum and opportunity.” 

Taking a wider view of healthcare in its communities, enabled through the formation of collaborative relationships, also forms MUSC’s strategies to meet its vision, such as ensuring that rural communities have access to care and even in creating a partnership two years ago with the Department of Corrections in South Carolina to build a closed unit for care of inmates on the top floor of MUSC Health Chester (S.C.) Medical Center. 

Such intersections with the community are important because providing healthcare strikes at the sustainability of the residents an organization hopes to serve, Cole concludes, nothing that “A community without healthcare is a community without a future.” 

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