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News | Financial Leadership

Annual Conference Day 1: HFMA’s Fifer talks industry challenges, opportunities and the importance of curiosity

News | Financial Leadership

Annual Conference Day 1: HFMA’s Fifer talks industry challenges, opportunities and the importance of curiosity

  • HFMA’s 2021 Annual Conference kicked off Monday with a state-of-the-industry talk by HFMA President and CEO Joe Fifer.
  • Solutions to formidable challenges involving DEI, the healthcare workforce and consumerism are attainable, and a step in the right direction is for industry stakeholders to bring curiosity to their roles, Fifer said.
  • Celeste Headlee, an award-winning journalist and radio host, gave an opening keynote presentation on why conversing is a vital skill.

The challenges facing the healthcare industry are momentous, but healthcare finance professionals should be optimistic about their ability to help engineer solutions, HFMA President and CEO Joseph J. Fifer, FHFMA, CPA, said during the kickoff session of HFMA’s 2021 Annual Conference.

Launching HFMA’s first in-person event since the pre-COVID-19 era, Fifer said there are many reasons to doubt whether the industry and society at large have “made it through” the pandemic.

For one thing, travel restrictions prevented some members from attending in person. The pandemic may be ebbing in many places, but the coronavirus itself is not disappearing anytime soon. Debates over masks and vaccinations continue to sow discord.

In addition, issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have become more glaring over the last 18 months.

The makeup of Annual Conference attendees, of HFMA membership at large and of staffs throughout the industry is not where it should be, Fifer said. “Is it representative of the communities we serve?”

Another vital issue is the toll the last 20 months and especially the recent delta surge have taken on the healthcare workforce.

“This is the worst employment environment I have witnessed in nearly 40 years in the industry,” Fifer said.

Finally, the industry has made little progress on a vital issue not germane to the pandemic: consumerism.

“Healthcare has been slow to embrace truly consumer-focused processes,” Fifer said. “As a result, we have federal price transparency regulations, and as predicted they are not great solutions. It often feels like finance leaders are focusing on compliance with regulations, not the core issue of making their business processes more consumer-friendly.”

Reasons for optimism. “All in all, there is still a lot to be concerned about when it comes to both consumerism and diversity, equity and inclusion,” Fifer said. “Maybe a lot to be critical of. If we chose to, we would be justified in feeling pretty down.”

But there’s also reason to think the industry “is on the cusp of something very cool.”

Curiosity is a trait that will serve stakeholders well in the effort to transform healthcare. With regard to diversity, equity and inclusion, for example, curiosity can spur people to “stop, listen and care,” Fifer said, which represent the initial steps toward finding solutions.

“Do we have ready-made solutions for deeply entrenched issues related to systemic racism? No,” Fifer said. “Are we better off approaching these issues and potential solutions with curiosity than without it? Yes, without question.”

Concerns about the workforce may overlook the fact that “our biggest strength is our people,” Fifer said. “We don’t often talk about how adaptable and resourceful our people are.”

Healthcare personnel perform “miracles” on a daily basis, he said, not just in terms of outcomes but also in their ability to connect with people and inspire ease, confidence and hope.

Consumerism also is an area in which curiosity can lead to progress. The push is already underway, with the private-equity sector funneling billions of dollars toward innovative processes.

“I believe we’re going to see an explosion of consumer-friendly solutions,” Fifer told attendees. “I’m curious about the opportunities for reshaping healthcare to be consumer-focused. Are you?”

In the big picture, “We have changed in the last 18 months, and some of that change will be for the better,” Fifer said. “Someday when we look back at this time, distance will give us the perspective to be grateful for what we learned.”

An evolving focus for HFMA. This year’s Annual Conference is the signature event of HFMA’s 75th anniversary year, which was commemorated at a gala Monday night.

Fifer described the Association’s history as “75 years of change and resilience.”

An example of change is the Association’s evolving focus on cost effectiveness of health. It’s a term conference attendees can expect to hear plenty, and members will continue to hear it in HFMA circles moving forward.

“As a society, as an industry and, yes, as an Association, we need to focus on cost effectiveness of health,” Fifer said. “And I said health, not healthcare.

“Is this threatening? Only if you want the industry to work the same way it has for years.”

Overall, while the challenges are daunting, Fifer is intrigued to see what the future holds: “How can our group, now 75,000-strong, take the honest, solution-based conversations that we have started in the past couple of years to the next level? And how can we translate them to action?”

In closing, he said, “The future belongs to the curious. So, I hope you are ready for the challenge. I know we are.”

Celeste Headlee: Bring conversation back to the fore

The art of conversation should be viewed not as a soft skill but as a “core competency,” Headlee, an award-winning journalist and radio host and a best-selling author, said during Monday’s opening keynote presentation.

“It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are in your field,” Headlee said. “If your goal is actually accuracy, innovation and creativity, you are better off focusing on how well you work with others than focusing on your own skills.”

The first step toward becoming a better team player, “which means you’re going to be better at every single thing that you do, is to learn how to converse with [others],” she added.

That may seem especially challenging amid a long pandemic during which isolation has become more common in many work environments. But the ability to communicate and collaborate is innate to human beings, Headlee said, meaning it doesn’t take “a lot of work and a lot of time to learn about communication and workflow.

"Really, it just takes a few tweaks.”

One example: “We naturally have a tendency as human beings to not listen to people we think are of lower rank. Subconsciously, a decision is made in less than a split second about whether this person is of higher rank in our organization, whether they are smarter than we are, whether we think their opinion is worth listening to. And if it's not, we don't listen. And it requires effort then to force yourself to focus in.”

Looking ahead

While HFMA’s 2021 Annual Conference still has two full days to go, the 2022 conference in Denver is less than eight months away. Mark your calendars

About the Author

Nick Hut

is a senior editor with HFMA, Westchester, Ill. (nhut@hfma.org).

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