Organizations with multiple hospitals and other facilities spread over a large region can rightly call themselves health systems only if they have effective coordination of clinical services across their service areas.


  • When effectively designed and implemented, regionalization allows a health system to coordinate care, eliminate redundancies, reduce costs, optimize resource utilization, and improve outcomes.
  • The preferred model to manage service lines regionally will depend on each facility’s capabilities and the willingness of physicians to accept changes in clinical delivery.
  • Health systems can overcome physicians’ objections to regionalization by implementing a hospital-physician alignment structure that gives a measure of shared control in the management of the organization.

Health care is a crowded and competitive environment, evidenced by the fact that many health systems operate several hospitals in close proximity to one another. Although some systems have operated this way for decades, others have only recently found themselves in this position as a result of merging with or acquiring nearby facilities. The facilities are technically connected through a single health system, but a vast disconnect often exists between or among them: The hospitals frequently provide overlapping clinical services with little or no coordination or sharing of best practices.

So what really makes them a “health system”? Is it that they share a layer of administrative leadership or support services such as IT, revenue cycle, and human resources? Not really. If a health system’s core competency is the delivery of healthcare services, then its primary focus should be on the effective coordination of clinical services throughout its service area.

Hospitals within a health system should work in a coordinated fashion to deliver high-quality, low-cost healthcare services. Health systems that are striving to be population health managers should be able to provide a comprehensive continuum of services across all levels of acuity. If they are entering full-risk arrangements, the need for them to produce outstanding clinical outcomes at low cost becomes of paramount importance. To this end, health systems should develop and implement best practices that translate into exemplary clinical operations, communication with patients, and supply chain management, among other facets, across all of their facilities in the region. By managing service lines at a regional level and aligning with physicians through shared service-line control, fragmented facilities can transform into a true system that improves health.

Exhibit 1

Fink_Exhibit 1

Why Regionalize?

Regionalization refers to the coordination, centralization, and/or colocation of similar service offerings within a given service area. When effectively designed and implemented, regionalization allows a health system to coordinate care, eliminate redundancies, reduce costs, optimize resource utilization, and improve outcomes.

On the surface, decisions to eliminate duplication and standardize clinical processes within a system may seem obvious, yet few organizations have successfully accomplished this objective. The cultural and political barriers are often perceived to be too steep to overcome. But in a payment environment that increasingly rewards efficiency, coordination, and quality, health systems can no longer afford to ignore the strategic and financial opportunities that regionalization presents.

Providing comprehensive and coordinated care to manage the health of a population, produce outstanding clinical outcomes, and reduce costs is particularly important for health systems that are entering arrangements with greater risk. Health systems that manage and maximize clinical service lines across a regional network are better-positioned to provide accessible, high-quality care at lower costs.

Sidebar: Funds-Flow Adjustments in the Transition to Regionalization

Implementing Regional Service-Line Planning and Management

The preferred model to manage service lines across a health system’s geographic area will depend on each facility’s capabilities and the willingness of physicians to accept changes in clinical delivery. Regionalization typically follows one of three models:

  • The hub-and-spoke model, in which tertiary facilities act as hubs where complex specialty services are provided, and smaller hospitals within the system serve as spokes feeding patients to the tertiary centers
  • The distributed model, in which centers of excellence for select service lines are established across system hospitals, so that different hospitals act as the hub for each service line
  • The coordinated model, in which service lines are coordinated across hospitals and performance is measured at the regional rather than facility level

When a service line is managed across a network, success is best measured at the regional level. Hospital leaders shift their own focus and incentives, and those of staff, beyond a single facility and toward the region. Planning can then proceed with consideration of each hospital’s capabilities, existing outpatient facilities, physician locations, and competitive environment.

When a health system’s stakeholders all are focused on the success of the region, the system can better define its shared vision and goals for the regional service line, the role and programmatic focus of each facility, and the organizational and management structure across all campuses. The preferred structure should specify how services will be managed to foster coordination across all of the health system’s hospitals and outpatient facilities. Important considerations include the programmatic footprint identified at each campus and the resulting implications for patient flow, staffing, and operational efficiency.

Under this regional approach, operating and capital budgets for each regional service line should feed into each hospital’s budget and the health system’s budget. Financial reports and dashboards to track key metrics should be prepared for each regional service line, to be monitored by system leaders.

Integrating with Physicians Through Shared Control

Of course, the success of regionally managed service lines largely depends on the engagement, commitment, and leadership of the physicians who deliver the services.

A variety of hospital-physician alignment structures may exist in a hospital’s service line. Across a regional health system, the methods of alignment are even more likely to vary and may include employment of physicians, professional service agreements, joint ventures, and other alignment structures. Furthermore, the physicians who have a direct impact on each hospital’s service line may be competitors of one another, have adversarial relationships, or represent multiple specialties.

This situation raises a number of critical questions:

  • How can the health system best align the interests of each hospital and the interests of physicians to develop a regional service line network?
  • How should the network be structured to ensure that all parties fully support and benefit from it?
  • What should the health system do to ensure the network will retain and attract physicians and flourish through changes in payment methodologies, the growth of consumerism, and rising pressures to reduce utilization and costs?

The nation’s best-performing hospitals are those with a high degree of physician leadership, where physicians have a strong voice in operations and where the administration is seen as being supportive of improvements physicians seek rather than as a barrier. Comanagement arrangements have gained popularity as an alignment option because of their track record in successfully engaging the physicians who directly affect the cost and quality of care delivered within a service line.

Under a regional comanagement model, a company is formed for the purpose of entering into a contract with the health system to manage the regional service line. Through this approach, a health system can align with a broad base of physicians to drive service-line success. Physicians whose practices may compete with one another—and who may work under a variety of alignment structures with the hospitals within the system and have varying degrees of commitment to the system and its hospitals—can be brought together as members of the management company. Together, the physicians collaborate across facilities to identify, refine, and implement best practices to reduce costs, improve quality, and enhance patient satisfaction.

Although there are no requirements for ownership, and the management company may in some instances be wholly owned by physicians, many health systems seek participation in and ownership of such a company to ensure another level of alignment. Exhibit 2 below presents a general comanagement structure.

Exhibit 2

Fink_Exhibit 2

The management company manages the day-to-day operations and participates in long-term planning for the regional service line. The scope of responsibilities varies depending on the capabilities of the physicians and their willingness to dedicate the time and effort required to achieve the goals established under the management agreement. Common responsibilities of the management company include:

  • Developing the strategic and operational plans for the regional service line
  • Collaborating with health system executives to set the strategic direction of the overall program
  • Supporting the development of financials/analytics and a market analysis for strategic planning
  • Collaborating with administrators of outpatient facilities
  • Developing and implementing clinical protocols and overseeing other quality, outcome, and service initiatives
  • Directing program development efforts and participating in outreach and education
  • Providing a range of medical director services

The compensation paid to the management company for delivering services typically includes a base amount plus a variable amount tied to the performance of predetermined incentives. With a portion of the payment contingent upon the achievement of specific quality and efficiency measures, the participating physicians are more committed to making clinical and operational changes that improve regional service line performance.

Overcoming Barriers

Integrating with physicians through shared control will help to overcome the objections that many physicians would otherwise have regarding regionalization, but physicians are just one group among many stakeholders who would be impacted by regionalization. Exhibit 3 below summarizes the primary concern of various stakeholders and potential solutions to overcome the barriers that can derail a regionalization initiative.

Exhibit 3

Fink_Exhibit 3

Start with Why

Regionalization is often accompanied by the reduction and elimination of services at some facilities. This concept is admittedly difficult to sell—to the health system’s board and executives, to the physicians, to the nursing staff, and to the community. Consolidating the finance department is a whole lot easier than coordinating cardiology services across facilities. But achieving efficiencies in check writing and bond financing won’t reduce medical errors, enhance patient satisfaction, or save lives. Ultimately, it will take strong leaders and aligned physicians to guide health systems in overcoming the obstacles associated with regionalization.

So where to start? The key message in Simon Sinek’s acclaimed book Start with Why is that “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” The why for regional health systems often centers on building healthy communities and promoting wellness. These endeavors are at the heart of why health systems do what they do, and they should be the primary focus of every healthcare organization

The essential message is simple: If we remain focused on our why and keep others focused on it as well, we will recognize the opportunity that regionalization provides to achieve it.

John Fink is senior manager, ECG Management Consultants, Inc., San Diego, and a member of HFMA’s San Diego Imperial Chapter.

Publication Date: Saturday, November 01, 2014