A skilled healthcare executive and COO of Jefferson Health New Jersey, Brian Sweeney has effectively led and managed a wide range of clinical programs, operational divisions and support services for academic health systems. He has concentrated on strategic planning, business development, process improvement, service line leadership, and integrating and aligning medical professionals, nurses, and support services staff to achieve the desired results of quality and safety, financial performance, and growth.
He is skilled in the use of Lean and Work-Out™ change methodologies, as well as GE Healthcare management and leadership systems. As a speaker at national healthcare conferences, Brian imparts his understanding of healthcare operations and performance improvement to enhance the complex and constantly changing healthcare industry.
Healthcare is a highly regulated sector with significant accountability for the clinical results of patients. Entrepreneurs pursuing healthcare endeavors must seek counsel from experienced healthcare providers to assure their business models are realistic, given the complexity of patient care and engagement.
Below are highlights of the interview that highlight Brian Sweeney’s journey as a healthcare leader and how the leadership role in healthcare has been transformed in recent years:
Brief us about yourself and shed some light on your journey as COO at Jefferson Health – New Jersey. What inspires you to serve the healthcare industry?
I was drawn to providing clinical care at an early age after volunteering as an EMT with the local ambulance squad. I started my career as a nurse, working in the ER at a community hospital, then at an urban level 1 trauma center, and as a flight nurse. I pursued my MBA from Temple University and entered management in a role overseeing Jefferson’s critical care transport program.
I continued building competencies over time and progressed through various leadership roles, including VP, COO and President. I joined Jefferson Health – New Jersey as President and COO in March 2020, just as the pandemic began.
I met my direct reports for the first time as I arrived at our incident command center when our first COVID-19 patient arrived! I have been inspired to serve, given my deep appreciation for the front-line staff and the incredible work they do every single day for our patients, families and the community. I have remained grounded in how important they are to clinical outcomes, from my early experience as a bedside nurse.
Can you elaborate upon the core values, mission and vision based on which your services are aligned with Jefferson Health – New Jersey?
Our mission is to improve lives. Our vision is to reimagine health, education, and discovery to create unparalleled value. Our values are to put people first, be bold and think differently, and do the right thing. We are a large, multi-state academic health system. New Jersey is an important suburban market for us, and we have been focused on creating advanced clinical programs so patients can receive high-quality, cost-effective care close to home. Our experience as an educational and research institution also enables us to train healthcare providers and to offer cutting-edge treatments, including clinical trials.
In your opinion, what areas does your health system struggle with when it comes to operational matters and caring for patients?
The greatest challenge today is the labor shortage. We employ 45,000 people across our system in many different clinical, technical, administrative and support service roles. Historically, people would join a healthcare organization and stay for their whole career, sometimes for 30 or 40 years.
But times have changed. Employees do not stay as long, and there is increased competition from retail operators, such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart; digital health companies offering remote jobs, and just a general shortage of professionals entering the field. We have adapted by developing many new programs to replenish the pipeline, including building relationships with high schools and other community organizations to encourage an early interest in the profession, expanding our training programs so we can be more self-sufficient — such as the recent addition of a new physician’s assistant training program in NJ — and developing new staffing models, such as our SEAL nurse program that enables flexible staffing across our system.
We even started an emeritus nurse program, where retired nurses come back to work part time and mentor the new-to-practice nurses. This is a time for creativity in our industry.
In what way do you consider the hospital’s technological advances a pathway in conducting care and treatment services effectively?
New technological advances appear every week in healthcare, and we take every opportunity to incorporate them into care delivery. We were fortunate to recently construct new hospital towers with private rooms in two of our South Jersey markets. The front-line staff worked with the facilities team and architects and designers to evaluate the latest innovations and incorporate them into the design.
The patient rooms feature electronic whiteboards that assist with patient education, keep patients informed about their providers and the daily care plan, and allow for telehealth. Patients can adjust heating and lighting from their beds and make requests for food, housekeeping, or other guest services through automated technology. Patient alarms and alerts are sent directly to Apple iPhones carried by all clinical teams to reduce noise and prompt an immediate response. These enhancements are all designed to enhance quality, safety and the patient experience.
What role does compassion play in caring for patients in need? In what ways do you ensure that the hospital delivers it?
It is difficult to be a patient. It is a very stressful, emotional and often uncomfortable event. I know this from my own personal experiences and those of family members who have received care. For us, it starts with hiring individuals who are a good fit for our culture and committed to compassionate care. We reinforce these principles through ongoing training, education and performance monitoring. I expect our leadership team to conduct leadership rounds every week to interact with patients, families, management and staff so we can verify that we are meeting expectations. We travel to our hospitals, surgery centers, physician offices and ancillary service departments to assess performance. We also use this as an opportunity to recognize our employees for doing the right thing and putting people first with awards like the DAISY Award for nurses, the Mission Moment for living our mission, the Great Catch for safety, and We Rise by Lifting Others for teamwork. Positive reinforcement from the frontline staff for exceptional care delivery is very meaningful and sets an example for others.
What endeavors are you currently pursuing to improve the hospital’s service measures for patients?
One of our service measures is health equity. Unfortunately, like many healthcare organizations, we have seen disparities across the country. The Jefferson Health Clinical Health Equity Program has been established to enable Jefferson to advance care excellence and achieve optimal outcomes for all patients by eliminating systemic bias within the care delivery process. The program creates alignment of efforts and initiatives and supports organizational accountability for exceptional outcomes in all population segments It also recognizes and rectifies systemic injustice, and drives necessary change. Our patient and family advisory councils, community outreach programs and precise management of the social determinants of health help us achieve the goals of all our patients.
What are some of the challenges you face when conducting projects and how do you turn them into opportunities for growth?
Healthcare delivery is team-oriented, and you need many different disciplines, such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, and technicians, to work together flawlessly to achieve the best possible outcomes. Aligning these stakeholders is critical to success, so we have developed a standardized operating model called the Operational Excellence program that we use daily to prioritize and organize all our projects, solve problems, track results and monitor team accountability.
We identify a portfolio of key growth, quality, patient experience and financial initiatives each year and develop robust project plans to drive execution. A key growth opportunity we are pursuing now through this framework is the development of a cancer center at our Cherry Hill campus. This includes new community screening programs and the expansion of medical oncology, infusion, radiation oncology, and surgical oncology services.
Share with us some of your strategies that have helped you in your position as a leader. How do you keep up with specific responsibilities at the hospital?
I have been focused on mentoring, coaching and developing other leaders for a significant portion of my career. The evidence is clear that high-performing leadership teams produce the best patient outcomes, and I personally enjoy helping my leadership team further build their competencies, solve problems together and gain additional experience and confidence. I’ve also discovered that, given the industry’s need for transformation, healthcare leaders today must be exceptional at process improvement and change management. Training individuals in Lean, Six Sigma, Project Management and incorporating these principles into everyday practice produces results.
How do you envision scaling your services and operations in 2022 and beyond?
We recently acquired a high-performing health plan, HealthPartners, which offers Medicaid and Medicare Advantage coverage. For years, we have been developing core competencies in population health, care coordination and data and analytics. We have expanded our provider network in PA and NJ extensively, and we are thrilled at the opportunity to connect the health plan to the network and to expand value-based care in our region.
What are some of the testimonials or recognitions that accurately highlight your position in the market?
I am especially proud of three national recognitions. Jefferson Health – New Jersey received the Healthgrades Patient Safety Excellence Award in 2019 and five-star ratings in orthopedics, gastroenterology and critical care outcomes in 2020. Our three NJ hospitals each received an “A” hospital safety grade in November 2022 from The Leapfrog Group. This national distinction celebrates our achievements in protecting hospital patients from preventable harm and errors.
Lastly, we are in the process of magnet re-designation, resulting in an environment that inspires nurses to work together and advance healthcare. For patients, it means the very best care delivered by nurses who are supported to be the best they can be.