George Halvorson served as CEO of Kaiser Permanente from 2002 until 2013, transforming a fragmented organization with a bruised external reputation into a nationally recognized leader on cost and quality.
But getting the organization to excel required more than just operational improvements—it took a strategic message, he explains in an interview with Modern Healthcare.
Halvorson, who was recently honored with Modern Healthcare's Marketing Visionary IMPACT Award, says he initially turned down the CEO role at Kaiser. While he believed in its integrated model that combined care delivery and insurance, managed care plans were viewed skeptically by the public at the time and Kaiser had been struggling financially.
Colleagues ultimately convinced him that Kaiser could do big things with the right leadership. But Halvorson faced significant challenges.
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When he started as CEO, the organization was integrated in some ways—but not in others. Each of its eight regions had separate electronic health record (EHR) systems. Kaiser's 30 hospitals and other care sites used a staggering 125 different accounting systems.
The system also had fragmented messaging. Halvorson remembers having to call three different offices to help coordinate communications in response to a controversy early in his tenure.
Halvorson moved quickly to unify Kaiser's EHR and accounting software. He then focused on reshaping Kaiser's image in the eyes of its employees, customers, and the industry alike.
Finding a message
"I knew there was great power in having a redemptive ad campaign that encouraged the best behaviors," Halvorson explains. To run the effort, he tapped Bernard Tyson, who would replace him as CEO in 2013.
The award-winning "Thrive" campaign Tyson developed was designed to promote both Kaiser's proactive approach to wellness and its acute-care expertise. The commercials became staples in some markets, but in many ways the audience was internal.
"It was really good for the staff morale in seeing ads about the great things being done by the organization," Halverson says. And the branding campaign also helped give the organization focus. "A brand is a belief system," he explains, adding, "If people believe the number one value is to improve health, then everything you do is interpreted in the context of improving health."
While the "Thrive" campaign was making headway engaging employees around Kaiser's mission and increasing interest among consumers, Halverson also wanted to improve Kaiser's reputation in the industry. So the system also established an "insider" campaign called Best Care, which highlighted Kaiser's business and care improvement efforts.
"We did a brand for the heart and a brand for the head," Halverson says.
Brand 'creates an expectation'
Tyson was also charged with collecting data to make sure Kaiser was executing on it brand vision. "The focus was on the building block of the [EHR] and our ability to look at data … to determine if we were delivering the best care possible," Tyson recalls, adding that Halverson was "willing to bet the farm on that."
Over the course of Halvorson's tenure, Kaiser delivered on its branding, becoming a nationally recognized leader in cost, quality, and integration. But Halvorson stresses that branding wasn't just a goal—it was a tool.
"A brand is a paradigm," he says. "It creates an expectation and tells you what ought to happen" (Goozner, Modern Healthcare, 10/30).
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