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Four pillars that support change

August 1, 2007
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Washtenaw County, Michigan, built better services based on four guiding principles

Community mental health centers across the nation have faced numerous challenges in the past decade: an unstable and shifting revenue base for public services, increased demand for public services, increased reliance on Medicaid, and higher expectations for quality outcomes. Washtenaw County in Southeastern Michigan has shared these challenges, but we have been fortunate to have a group of visionary leaders who are transforming healthcare in our community.

We believe that now, more than ever, organizations need systems to transform to respond to both external challenges and to proactively meet their own internal goals. In Washtenaw County, our goal is to create a community where behavioral healthcare is recognized as both a right of all citizens and integral to the well-being of both individuals and communities. We hope that some of the lessons we have learned will benefit other communities as well.

The Four Pillars

As Washtenaw County transitioned to managed behavioral healthcare, a regional approach, and options for integrated care, leaders struggled to create a culture of commitment to excellence, fiscal and clinical accountability, and a willingness at every level to implement evidence-based practices. While the system was not broken, it was mired in complacency, and leaders knew we were not fully prepared for the challenges ahead.

In our journey we have identified four “pillars” that have become the foundation for our system's transformation:

  • Change Leadership

  • Information Management

  • Integrated Healthcare

  • Evidence-Based Practices (EBPs)

Change Leadership and Information Management provide the essential structure needed to deliver EBPs and Integrated Healthcare. These powerful tools are transforming our system and changing lives.

A shared vision produces results that can't be bought. Through Change Leadership we have created a vision of recovery and integrated healthcare. The stakeholders in the vision include public officials, policy boards, major health systems, providers, payers, consumers, and families. While creating a vision for a community in which every citizen experiences the best possible health and well-being, we also have articulated the necessary components of a system that will support the vision.

To enable this future, leaders have exhibited the courage to redesign and restructure the organizations they lead. In May 2000 this led to the creation of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization. The WCHO replaced the community mental health board and created a new policy board with broader responsibilities. Through this transformation, oversight of publicly funded behavioral healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and primary care for indigent and Medicaid populations was integrated into a single administrative unit. The WCHO is a joint venture between the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and the University of Michigan Health System. The WCHO also operates in close partnership with the county's Public Health Department, the Washtenaw Health Plan (a county-based health plan for adults who are indigent, are uninsured, or have low incomes and who do not qualify for state or federal programs), and Community Support and Treatment Services, the primary provider of community mental health services.

The WCHO and its partners are transforming the system from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment, in which staff members at every level are committed to a common, yet personal, vision. We have learned to apply the principles and practices of leadership, management, and coaching across multiple systems to create quantifiable results for consumers and the community. As a result, both consumer and staff satisfaction levels have continued to rise during a decade that has included massive restructuring, multiple budget cuts, and heightened expectations from all sources. For example, consumer satisfaction has increased from the 85 to 90% range to the 90 to 96% range, depending on the program and the satisfaction element. Through simple but powerful leadership tools based on a commitment to the success of each individual and each partner, we have unleashed unexpected reserves of talent, creativity, and energy.

Well-managed information reduces costs and leads to unexpected insights. Information Management is the second pillar and provides the infrastructure for transformation. We decided to create our own information technology system, called Encompass. Prior to the new system, our IT systems were disjointed and inadequate. We used separate systems for billing, basic data collection, and authorization processes. Our clinical record was entirely paper-based with only billing information and basic demographics captured electronically. We surveyed a number of off-the-shelf and customizable products but did not find one that would comprehensively meet our needs.

Our new system is a Web-based electronic medical record and information management system that lays the technologic foundation for implementing Integrated Healthcare and EBPs. The WCHO, provider network, Public Health Department, and Washtenaw Health Plan all migrated to the IT system to meet the needs of public-sector managers, providers, and consumers. The IT system's benefits are seen from the highest policy level to the individual clinician and consumer.