Tales from the Trenches with Debra Geihsler, CEO of Activate Healthcare

For Debra Geihsler, the answer to reducing healthcare costs and improving wellness outcomes is a simple one: Figure out how to keep patients out of the hospital in the first place.

Debra spent decades leading healthcare organizations, including eight years as CEO of the 1200-provider combined Harvard Vanguard Medical Group and Atrius Health System in Boston, and two years at Advocate Medical Group in Chicago. In 2009, Debra took the leap into entrepreneurship and founded Indianapolis-based Activate Healthcare, a leader in managing and delivering near-site primary care to employees and their dependents at no cost, all while focusing on preventive measures that help people live healthier. In those ten years, Activate has reached over 130,000 patients across 150 employers.

Debra recently joined us at Tales from the Trenches™ to share her journey from a one-room country schoolhouse to the forefront of one of the biggest shifts in healthcare delivery.

Read some of our key takeaways from the event:

On leadership for survival

“When I got to [Advocate Medical] they were like ‘Well, you’re the fifth CEO’, and I think the idea was with the culture — you know, you won’t be here [for long] either. And so the determination was sort of like that, plus it was a turnaround…

“You have to test your leadership skills and, when you’re in a turnaround, you really have to have one person in charge. While I love servant leadership, if you want to effectively turn around, you can’t have a million ideas going on, you need to have one common goal, something the entire team can work towards. Survival is getting everything lined up to make sure we are consistently heading in the right direction — or we might not be here next year.”

“Survival is getting everything lined up to make sure we are consistently heading in the right direction — or we might not be here next year.”

Investing in provider relationships

“If you have the right provider talking to the right group of people, you gain a lot of trust. And once you develop that relationship, you can actually help guide and support the patients, which is what we tried to create.

“The rules for Activate were that we were going to hire the providers full time, and they were going to be a large part of the picture as well. We roughly have about 1,200 members per provider, and while the providers already know the answers, they don’t often know the patient. I would like for them to hear the story.”

On treating the whole person

“Knowing the condition underneath helps you understand the whole person. The patient may not comprehend exactly why they’re there so you really have to paint that picture for them which does two things: The patient feels heard which is great, and you build their trust by understanding and respecting their value system.

“The [patients] were appreciating being healthy, they appreciated somebody being there, proactively working with them and being respected by a professional who would listen to their story and understand their personal value system in order to help them have a healthy life. It’s the type of system we were looking to create and it was wildly successful.”

Patient empowerment creates lasting change

“There are a lot of people and patients out there who don’t have control over a lot of things in their life but when we empower them to transform their healthcare, it’s amazing how that spreads into their whole view of everything else. Now, they own their health and they can do something about it. That’s how you create lasting change.

“I think patients are the ones who should own their health and be accountable. But they can’t do it on their own — patients need to have someone who is guiding them and who personally understands the complex health systems.”

Advice to others starting out in healthcare

“You need to be humble, because this business is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you’re going to start a new organization, you need to learn how to pick yourself up and continue down the road while learning how to improve yourself and your company. I always say ‘If we’re doing the same thing that we were doing last year, we’re doing all the wrong things.’ You have to keep improving but you have to prove your conviction you have to get good results.

“Be honest with yourself and with the people you serve. We aren’t playing a role, this is reality. You build credibility by living up to your word.”

“I always say: If we’re doing the same thing that we were doing last year, we’re doing all the wrong things.”

Want to hear from more healthcare innovators like Debra? Join us on August 28 for Tales from the Trenches™ with Charlie Mills, CEO of Medline.