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The Business Side of Taking Care of People

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Warner Thomas on leading the New Orleans region’s biggest hospital

Ochsner Health System is the biggest hospital in the New Orleans region, and it’s also the best, according to a recent ranking by U.S. News and World Report. With this award and other recent accolades, Ochsner has been raking in recognition and burnishing its national reputation. “We’ve never done better from a quality perspective as we’ve done in the last year,” says Warner Thomas, the president and Chief Operating Officer of the health-care organization.

Besides leading the U.S. News regional rankings, the publication included Ochsner in top-50 national rankings in seven departments: heart/heart surgery, ENT, gastroenterology, orthopedics, gynecology, and geriatrics. More 2011 awards from other organizations included HealthGrades, which ranked Ochsner among the top 5 percent of hospitals in the United States for superior patient outcomes; Thomson Reuters, which named Ochsner as one the country’s “100 Top Hospitals” and one of 15 “Major Teaching Hospitals”; and Becker’s Hospital Review, which cited Ochsner in its “50 Best Hospitals in America” survey.

“Ochsner has acquired several hospitals post-Katrina, and in every one, the quality metrics have improved,” says Thomas. “We bring in systems that we’ve determined to work well, and we put forth higher expectations and demand more accountability.”

In addition, Thomas credits Ochsner’s concerted efforts to recruit talented doctors as one of the reasons behind the organization’s elevated standings, and these awards create a virtuous cycle. “When we recruit top talent, we win awards, and that helps up recruit more talent. Everyone wants to work for a winner,” he says.

Beyond Ochsner’s strengthening reputation, Thomas also credits New Orleans itself as a significant factor in recruiting. The culture and beauty of New Orleans create a natural draw for professionals looking to live somewhere unique, and many young people want to become part of the story of the city’s renaissance.

As COO, Thomas oversees the administration of the hospital system. Quite tall and possessing a dry and relaxed sense of humor, Thomas seems to have good rapport with the thousands of employees at Ochsner. He waves hello to many who pass by in the halls. Of course, he doesn’t purport to know all 13,000 who work system-wide at the organization, but he enjoys being part of the camaraderie.

“It’s a friendly culture here. Part of that is because we exist to take care of people. We have that common purpose,” Thomas says. “Like anywhere, we have good days and bad days, but when the chips are down, the people here really pull together. That’s why I feel we’ve flourished post-Katrina.”

Warner Thomas was raised in rural Vermont in an area with “more cows than people.” His mother worked in a nursing home, and his father was a welder who also ran an automotive garage business on the side. Growing up with a head for numbers and seeing his father’s business in action, Thomas decided that studying accounting would be a good launching point for a career. After attending New Hampshire College and earning degrees in accounting and information systems, he secured a job at Ernst & Young. Working for a big accounting firm wasn’t a great ambition of his, but it seemed like the natural first step on his career path. At his job in New Hampshire, he earned his CPA and also commuted regularly to Boston to earn his MBA.

One of his clients at Ernst & Young was a hospital, and Thomas eventually left the firm to work directly for them. “I found I liked health care. It’s a business, but a business whose job it is to take care of people. And hospitals help their communities,” he says. “Health care is complicated and highly regulated, so I saw there were opportunities for good management in the field and ways for me to add value.”

Eventually, Thomas felt ready to leave the New Hampshire hospital and grow with a bigger organization. In 1998 he moved to New Orleans with his wife to work at Ochsner. Their daughter, now 11, was raised in New Orleans. Thomas recently served as chairman of the board of her school, St. George’s, and has volunteered in city business organizations as well.

“Truthfully, I came to New Orleans for the job at Ochsner, not for the city itself,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d be here 12 years. But we grew into New Orleans and became a part of it. That’s why we’re still here.”

Despite the rich, caloric foods associated with New Orleans’ cuisine, Thomas has found his lifestyle in the city to have improved his health. He’s lost 80 pounds since his arrival. He, his wife and daughter use a personal trainer for a family workout at Elmwood Fitness every Sunday, and on top of his very full days as a top executive at a major health-care organization, Thomas has been training for an Iron Man race.

“It’s like a part-time job,” he says with a smile. “I suppose I’m a type A personality. I’m driven, but I like to think I’m driven for the right reasons.”

He’s driven on behalf of Ochsner as well. The vision for the organization that he and his colleagues have been working toward is to make the main facility a top referral center in a region that stretches from Houston to Birmingham. Meanwhile, within the New Orleans area, the plan is to migrate the less exclusive health-care services out of the main Jefferson campus and into local Ochsner hospitals. That way, whether patients live in Slidell or Kenner or on the West Bank, they can find more complete medical care closer to home.

In the health-care industry as a whole, Thomas foresees continued cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, which will lead to lower reimbursements and increased financial pressure on hospitals and doctors. Although Thomas believes Ochsner is well positioned to meet these developments, many institutions around the country will probably find these challenges to be difficult. Overall, Thomas maintains that health-care organizations need to be more proactive to meet our country’s health-care issues.

“We’ve been partnering with the state government with ideas about how to help with Medicaid. We’ve been partnering with employers to create preventative care and wellness programs for their employees,” Thomas says. “We can’t expect the government to fix everything. Our industry needs to become a bigger part of health-care solutions.”