Behind the Scenes: Tom Mee

You started your career in Royal Oak, have experience in the metro Detroit markets and now have been in Lansing since 2012. How would you describe the capacity and capability of Lansing’s health care options, including McLaren, to its roughly 114,000 people?

I worked in the metro Detroit health care market beginning with my bedside nursing career, going back to 1985. The market was saturated with health care providers, all pushing themselves to improve and gain an edge.

Lansing is a very similar market, and is truly blessed to have multiple hospital providers challenging each other to get better. In our business, if you’re not improving, you are declining. McLaren Greater Lansing has been extremely fortunate to call the Greater Lansing area our home for more than a century, and we look forward to the next 100 years. 

What kind of firsthand experiences and knowledge do you bring to your role of CEO at McLaren Greater Lansing?

Even in 2017, it remains relatively unusual to have health care CEOs with a background in clinical care. The fact that I remain a licensed registered nurse provides me with a myriad of firsthand experiences that help me to make better decisions as a health care leader. Our foundation at McLaren is “Every Patient, Every Time”, which means that — as an organization — we strive to provide an error-free, quality experience backed by the field’s best practices for every single patient encounter. Today, it isn’t enough to be competent; the goal is to surround the patient with compassion and empathy, while simultaneously providing a technically superior outcome. 

McLaren has a big focus on innovation. Talk about how that fits into the company’s mission and how that is executed daily.

You cannot separate quality health care from innovation: the former cannot be achieved without the latter. Often, innovation takes the form of capital expenditures for recent technology, or it takes the form of a leadership team challenged constantly to think outside the proverbial health care box. Capital is easy, as it just takes money and a willingness to spend it. The more challenging innovators in health care, however, are the ones asking constituents to think of innovative ways to address ongoing issues. You’ll see the most progress in this area is prompted by process changes via LEAN engineering or change management. Simply asking people, ‘why do we always do it this way?’ can often lead to dramatic improvements in patient care and experience.

What are the advantages of working in a middle-sized city like Lansing?

 I’ve been in the Lansing region now since 2013; the last two years as President and CEO. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to leave Lansing for other duties, but I elected to stay and, in fact, hope to finish my health care career in Lansing.

I describe this area as a big city with the feel of a small town. When I arrived here in 2013, I was amazed at how many Lansing stakeholders reached out to me to offer their help. It was then that I realized everyone pretty much knew everyone else, and that community support is what will keep me here. We have the capital, we have two outstanding health systems that drive each other to excellence and we have community leaders who donate their personal time and resources to health care-related endeavors. I couldn’t ask for more.

Back in 2014, McLaren was forced to lay off employees, reduce hours and cut back to offset lower patient counts and less revenue. Where does McLaren stand today in terms of employees?

Like every other health care system recently, we found ourselves faced with a health care environment that reimburses less than previously, with a much lower utilization on inpatient hospital stays. We made some tough decisions in 2014 with the intent of creating a leaner, more efficient organization that would position us to succeed in the future. Since our rightsizing effort in 2014, we have seen growth in most every major service line along with associated volumes of patients. Today, we have more than 2,000 employees in various roles and disciplines, far more than we had even two years ago.

When it comes to hiring employees in the field, are you finding qualified candidates?

The answer is yes and no. McLaren is not alone facing the challenges of a reduction of licensed health care providers, specifically registered nurses and physicians. Today, health care systems not only compete for patients and services, but employees as well. I’ve made it no secret at McLaren that my top priority is employee engagement. At McLaren, we don’t choose candidates to work with us; they do the choosing. One of the keys to achieving success in this field is having an engaged and active workforce, and the key to engagement is an alignment of principles and values in which we operate. 

Do you see those employment trends changing in the future?

 As it relates to the recruitment and retention of licensed providers, unfortunately – no, I do not see that changing in the short term. We find ourselves in a time where not as many of our best and brightest young people are choosing a career in the health care sector. Our work is tough. It requires not only a real and substantial monetary investment in education, but also an emotional investment to serve a community at potentially the lowest point in their lives. While admittedly cliché, there is a “calling” involved when one decides on a health care career.

As it relates to the hundreds of other positions within the hospital setting, technology will largely drive those changes. We’re entering a time where every employee doesn’t necessarily need to be on campus to help, so we see substantial change as it relates to hours of work and the location of that work, due to legitimate demands of the current workforce.  

Given your expertise, what are your thoughts on the current situation/outlook of U.S. government’s and Presidency’s stance on health care reform?

 This is a touchy one, as it’s difficult to answer given the uncertainty of the situation. What I know is that I entered a career in not-for-profit health care because of a deep-rooted interest in helping others. We now face a political climate where access to health care services for certain people is being threatened, which is inconsistent with our altruistic mission of helping others. The only thing I can say, with absolute certainty, is that the hospital will continue to operate as we always have, embracing each patient with an unambiguous goal of providing an exceptional service, every time. 

Where should it be heading?

One can debate the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but what isn’t subject to debate is that it forced providers to collectively look at outcomes — patient experience, quality metrics, etc. — rather than volumes. Put simply, it forced us to look harder at how we provide care, and not how often we provide care. I firmly believe that providers who give the most value, as defined by both health outcomes and cost, must be part of the reimbursement discussion into the future. The choices we make in health care should essentially be vetted as strenuously as the choices we make in houses, cars, etc. 

How will the proposed changes affect McLaren employees and patients?

The 2017 American Health Care Act (AHCA) still needs approval, so it’s a bit too early to opine. We’ve spent the past decade adjusting to changes under the ACA, so any changes under the AHCA will take time to evaluate and implement as well. Using the repeal of Medicaid expansion as just one example, the state of Michigan and its health care organizations would have to readjust to a model where the uninsured again seek basic care in the expensive hospital setting, rather than in an appropriate physician office setting.

This conversation with Tom Mee has been edited for space and clarity.

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Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn received her degree in Journalism from Lansing Community College. She’s a concert junkie; living and breathing in both the local and national music scene. She is proud to call Lansing her home, finding a new reason every day to be smitten with the mitten.

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