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An up-and-coming executive role: chief population health officer

The role of CPHO is still being shaped, but every CPHO must be a leader

David Weldon, Contributor

With population health management becoming a central focus for more healthcare providers, a growing number are considering adding a chief population health officer to the executive ranks.

As noted in a recent help wanted ad for the role, CPHOs report to the chief executive officer, are responsible for overall strategic direction and coordination of population health and care management and must have leadership and team-building skills.

The expectation is that physicians will mostly be the ones to fill the role of CPHO, but being a physician alone will not be enough, noted a report published by Strategic Market Insight in April.

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CPHOs, the report noted, also need public health experience at a state or national level, have an advanced degree in business or health administration and have experience with team-based care.

A role whose time has come

The chief population health officer will become and remain one of the healthcare industry’s fastest growing C-suite positions for some time to come, said Jim King, senior partner and chief quality officer at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

“Business models in healthcare are changing rapidly, but they all seem to be evolving towards those that emphasize population health management, and specifically towards understanding what ‘health’ looks like in different markets,” King said. “There is no standard template that can be applied, so there is a great need for an executive who helps the organization define population health and wellness in target markets, and then to move aggressively to provide it.”

While some of the major and more progressive health systems have been developing these roles over the past year or two, the role is just becoming more prevalent, King said, as reform gains traction and viable population health models take hold. “A few years from now they’ll be more commonplace, even in smaller systems,” he said.

The role is beginning to become more prevalent, King explained, because “the CEO can’t do everything.”

“A CEO can grasp the concepts behind, for example, the new brand of value-based, patient-centric care and changing payment and reimbursement models, but can’t be expected to formulate and implement strategies in these areas without more support. Other executives – especially the chief clinical officer, chief medical officer and CFO – are providing this support as well, and not surprisingly the CPHO role works closely with these leaders,” King said.

“Under a population health model, there’s also a need for greater outreach and collaboration with payers, community organizations, and advocacy groups, and the population health executive can spearhead these important partnerships,” he added.

No one-size-fits-all approach

While certain aspects of a CPHO candidate may be the same across healthcare systems, there is a lot of room for variability on who makes an ideal CPHO – potential candidates could have payer or large physician group backgrounds, for instance.

Or, in the case of Marion A. McGowan, executive vice president and CPHO at Lancaster General Health in Pennsylvania, nursing. She moved from a clinical background to clinical leadership to an executive role. Prior to being appointed CPHO she was COO with Lancaster General.

McGowan, who has been in the CPHO position for a little more than 18 months and is the first person to fill the role at Lancaster General, says that even though a common standard for the role has not yet developed, there are important areas of experience or expertise that every CPHO should have:

  • The individual should be a visionary and understand healthcare reform, integration strategy and value-based care.
  • The individual should have a keen sense of how to manage complex systems, payer strategies and change leadership.

“This position is usually asked to take the lead in helping to design the population health strategy for the organization, and then taking the ball and implementing it,” said King. “A key aspect of implementation is getting buy-in from the organization and constituents (payers, community groups, etc.), creating a ‘followership,’ and so the CPHO has to be an influencer and champion of change.”

The leadership qualities needed for the role of CPHO make these executives strong candidates to eventually assume health system CEO positions, added King. “They will be working on the cutting edge of health reform, care model redesign, and building strong relationships with many influential people, and accumulating high-level strategic and operational experience. If she or he is an MD, that would make that person all the more attractive as CEO.”