President and CEO of Rush University System for Health and RUSH University Medical Center
Omar Lateef, President and CEO of Rush University System for Health and RUSH University Medical Center, shares how the health system became a pillar for underserved communities in Chicago and is chipping away at the death gap, one better patient outcome at a time.
How can leaders make an impact on health equity?
More than ever, there are buzz phrases leaders are using, and healthcare equity is one of them. But recognizing inequity is only the start; institutionalizing solutions is what we need, putting resources to solve the problems patients face. The role of leaders right now is to spread the word that you have to shift to action instead of words. What’s meaningful and what makes an impact? Some of this work comes at a cost, and you need to be transparent about it. If you spend money on a wellness center in a lower-income community, that won’t generate the same revenue when compared to a center in an affluent community. You are making decisions, at times, that can’t be as financially advantageous for the organization.
Second, leaders need to leave the conversation about characterizing the problem and shift to how to solve it and fund it. It is easier to highlight areas of inequity than to solve areas of inequity. If you just did a paper on different outcomes in colon cancer, that would get published. But if you try to solve that by putting access points in underserviced areas with lower payer mix, it is a different challenge.
How do you make the case for the bottom line?
The question is the solution. You’ll never make the case financially. It’s a burden for institutions. But if you see and understand healthcare as a human right, you’ll develop a strategic plan to develop that for your community. You’ll realize that improving patient health is greater than just improving their glucose control. It means you’ll enable improvements in jobs, in housing access opportunities, and in food insecurity.
How do you align stakeholders in viewing healthcare as a human right?
You set the culture in the organization. It’s a non-negotiable part of your mission. What we do isn’t targeted programs around equity; everything we do should be done from an equity lens. This is an expectation set by the chair of the board, and it’s who we are. It can't be an add on.
What can health organizations do if they have executives or board members who don’t have this mindset?
Any time an organization goes through a strategic planning process, if you do it without stakeholder support it won’t work. You have to get buy-in by having conversations, socializing the plan, and build the sense of internal trust. We’ve done that work at RUSH. Our expectation is so direct that people who don’t embrace that vision wouldn’t come be part of our culture. People have come to RUSH because they want to be part of this. They get it. We’re going to change the death gap, which allows us to live our values more than ever.
You talked about internal trust building. How about engaging the community for external trust building and collaboration?
Our team went out in the community, met pastors, local religious communities, civil society organizations such as My Block, My Hood, My City, and people living in the community. We held listening tours with the intent of asking “What is it that you need?” The mindset was, “If we don’t deliver, we’re done, but if we deliver, we can earn the trust of this community.” That work is hard and tiring, and David Ansell, our Senior Vice President for Community Health Equity, did it so he could listen and develop solutions with the community and then be credible in the community by delivering. That was the key to some of the success in the community programs.
Can you think of an ideal profile as a leader who does this well?
Healthcare is surrounded by dogma. Historically many people in healthcare have had the mindset of “I’m going increase revenue and cut expenses.” A conventional thought-process to manage healthcare won’t be needed in the future. We need to understand that as society has changed, a health center has to change. Leaders need to embrace new and innovative approaches to solve issues. We need to be agile institutions and emulate other markets that understood who the other patients were. Leaders must be willing to be innovative, entertain different and new ideas, and keep the focus alive on inequity. Racism is one of the greatest healthcare challenges of our time. If you don’t acknowledge that, you can’t change it. You can’t have different outcomes based on your color anymore. The fact we do is a black eye on this country.
What are you proudest of in your career?
I’m proud to be a “cog in the wheel” who believes in healthcare as a human right and follows that with tangible actions to decrease the death gap. I’m incredibly proud of being around heroes of healthcare every day. To be part of a team that fought to take healthcare to hundreds of patients during the pandemic. During Covid, it was people that wanted to come, take transfers, wanted to be here for a chance to make an impact. We wanted to get to the homeless population—that is the culture of RUSH. I am proud of being a small part of that culture, to continue and maintain it off of the great people before me.
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