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Pieces of Eight


Forum Updates Participants on Medical Practice Plan Efforts

By Crystal Baity

A new Web site aptly named New Horizons has been launched to keep faculty, staff and students informed about turnaround efforts in the Brody School of Medicine.

The site, www.ecu.edu/newhorizons, was one of several topics discussed Feb. 7 in the latest in a series of open forums to share information on ongoing efforts to increase profits in the medical faculty practice plan and to boost morale and teamwork among employees of the medical school and entire health sciences division.

The forum, sponsored by the ECU Staff Senate, featured a question-and-answer session with Dr. Phyllis Horns, interim vice chancellor for health sciences and interim dean of the medical school; Dr. Nicholas Benson, vice dean of the medical school; Kevin Seitz, ECU vice chancellor for administration and finance; and Chris Collins, consultant with ECG consulting group.

ECU has embarked on a multi-year effort to restore financial strength to the medical faculty practice plan, the clinical arm of the medical school through which faculty members provide health care and services. The faculty group practice, known as ECU Physicians, has lost $25 million in the last five years.

Questions ranged from the planned implementation of a new electronic medical records and clinical information system to concerns about possible faculty resignations during the transition.

Officials said they are committed to implementing HealthSpan, an electronic medical records system, and will soon assemble an operational team to address concerns. One key will be funding requested by the Duke Endowment to pay for ECU’s portion of the project. Pitt County Memorial Hospital and its parent company University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina are also implementing HealthSpan.

Another question centered on the relationship between Brody and PCMH, which recently named a new president and made other executive level changes.

“It’s a new day in terms of building the relationship for both of us,” Horns said, noting that the hospital purchases close to $25 million in services from ECU faculty which benefit both organizations. ECU and the hospital maintain more than 80 contracts which could benefit from a streamlined renewal process. Also the hospital will assume the responsibility for paying $1.8 million in fellowship program expenses in July, costs historically borne by the practice plan.

“We’ve taken what the chancellor has said very seriously. Everything is on the table,” Seitz said.

Tremendous progress has occurred in the first two quarters of the fiscal year to reduce costs but there is still a lot to do. Cutting the deficit and breaking even in 2007-2008 remain achievable goals by generating more revenue, reducing overhead, improving service and collecting $5 million annually for indigent care, with an increase to $10 million in year three, if approved by the General Assembly, Seitz said.

Opportunities exist through research and in new facilities such as the Moye Medical Building, Family Medicine Center and East Carolina Heart Institute. Also, some departments, such as the Medical Foundation, have been moved out of practice plan funding into other university divisions. “It all impacts the bottom line,” Seitz said.

Physician retention is another area of concern. Dr. William Meggs, chief of the Division of Toxicology and professor of emergency medicine, asked if there is a contingency plan for a worse-case scenario if large numbers of faculty left all at once. Horns said department chairs are working aggressively to address issues of retention, compensation, productivity and recruitment, but administrators don’t have all the answers. Seitz said they have not sensed attrition or turnover is significantly more than normal.

“When a medical school starts to slip, headhunters come and start to poach,” Collins said. While it may be attractive to want to go, the faculty is the school’s biggest asset. He noted that the current compensation plan was never fully implemented. Some are underpaid and a few may be overcompensated. Salary issues are not just contained to clinical faculty.

Others asked about possible layoffs.

“A major layoff is not a part of our basic plan,” Seitz said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t have to make modifications or adjust the size of the workforce. But we are focusing on other opportunities for raising revenue.”

ECG, the consulting firm, was chosen in part because they are known for fixing problems, not creating new ones, Seitz said. “We’re doing this for the long run, not the short run. Cuts don’t prepare you well for the future. It’s normal for people to ask ‘what about my job’ but we’re working very hard not to get to that point,” he said.

Focus groups will be set up in the coming weeks to learn more about opportunities for improvement, the interim dean said. It will take everyone’s part to succeed, and staff will be an integral part of the process because they work daily on the front lines of health care, she said.

“Examine your role in the area you’re working in to see if it can be more effective and efficient,” Horns said. “I do think we’re in a different day and it’s up to everyone to step up and say how it can be better.”

One person asked about the medical school’s competitive nature and how departments sometime appear to work against each other. “We’ve got a lot of internal policies that have fueled this competitiveness,” Horns said. “It’s not healthy because we’re not working together. We hope our organizational team will address some of these issues.”

Dr. Michael Rotondo, trauma surgeon and chairman of the department of surgery and chair of the newly implemented medical faculty practice plan board, is aware and concerned about keeping referrals in-house. He said the board will soon launch a “Patients First” campaign for service excellence.

Updates will be posted regularly on the New Horizons Web site.

This page originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.