Expertise from the Outside

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Magazine , December 11, 2008
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Academic medical centers may often have a leg up on their community hospital counterparts when it comes to recruiting renowned business leaders. But even though community hospitals may not have the same draw, experts contend, that doesn't mean they shouldn't aim high. "Often the biggest reason people don't do things like this is they are not asked," says Laret. "We were audacious and said, 'Who would we like to have on a board like this?'"

People on these types of advisory boards may enjoy the prestige, networking, and learning about cutting-edge research, but that's not why they participate, says Conway. Many of these people are "value-based people" who want to see healthcare improve, he says. "It is an opportunity to share what they know that can advance the quality and safety of healthcare."

Making it work
Taking the knowledge of these experts and applying it effectively to the healthcare industry requires some work on the front end, however. Here are steps that healthcare organizations should follow to have an effective relationship with an advisory team.

1. Don't waste their time. Conway says senior leaders should not create advisory boards unless they plan to use what they have learned. Business leaders want to participate and help the hospital, but hospital leaders need to do their part and actually use the advice. "People want to see that as a result of an investment in time and talent some nuggets have come out of this that are advancing the agenda," Conway says, adding that otherwise, "they'll say my time is too important to be wasted on things that don't add value."

2. Structure the discussion. Rather than present a topic for the advisory board to loosely discuss, Conway says hospital leaders should present three or four specific questions that they would like to have answered. Often the discussion will tee up two more questions that the hospital leaders never thought to ask because of the richness of the group, he says. "That is the exciting part of the process."

3. Do your homework. Both Paresky and Laret say healthcare leaders need to invest time on the presentations and the strategic issues about which they need advice for these meetings to be successful. The advisory board committees have been very time-consuming for staff members, but well worth the effort, Paresky says. "It makes us a better institution by having these visiting committees and members who visit and ask rigorous questions," she says.

4. Shut up enough to listen. Laret says too much talking by hospital leaders is a mistake he has seen in many of the groups with which he has been involved. "The more time we are talking in the meeting, the less value to them and less value to us," he says.

Paresky says the visiting committees' input "has generated creative and interesting ideas and helped us in our strategic thinking and planning." For example, Dana-Farber established the leadership role of chief clinical research officer to advance the institute's vision for clinical research. It also has taken on considerable expansion projects?the construction of the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care and satellite clinic locations, Paresky says.

For his part, Laret says putting together the advisory board was one of the best things that he ever did. "They have given us courage to take on some issues that we might not have taken on otherwise and given us political cover when we have taken bold steps that they have endorsed."

Carrie Vaughan is leadership editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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