Prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Indiana, Vasu Voleti, MD, MBA’19, was tackling the issue of using telehealth at her hospital system.
In an effort to balance occupancy disparities between busy, urban hospitals and suburban or rural critical care hospitals, Dr. Voleti was already implementing a lesson learned while earning her degree in the Physician MBA Program at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business before the pandemic made it a necessity.
“My classmates and I completed a venture project in professor Todd Saxton’s class called Doc Connect, which allows physicians to consult with patients remotely through telehealth. I’ve been working to implement it at our locations so more patients can be treated locally instead of transferring them to larger referral hospitals,” says Dr. Voleti. “We always discuss this healthcare triangle of quality, access and cost in which it is difficult to improve one without affecting the other. My goal is to leverage technology to improve access without compromising quality or raising the cost.”
A regional associate CMO at her healthcare system, Dr. Voleti’s telehealth concept had been well received by her peers and leadership. Then COVID-19 spread to Indiana. In late March 2020, Indianapolis was identified by the U.S. Surgeon General as an emerging hot spot for infection. The need to reduce transmissions of the virus while still treating patients was quickly expanding, and telehealth was perfectly positioned to help solve many of these issues.
“Telehealth has become critically important for treating patients and keeping our staff safe. In response to the pandemic, CMS revised its access requirements and reimbursement restrictions on telehealth, which resolved a huge roadblock,” says Dr. Voleti. “We are using telehealth to manage both outpatient and inpatient care. COVID-19 screenings are conducted through virtual visits, and we can see our patients with comorbidities who are frightened to come to a clinic or hospital due to the increased risk of exposure.”
An emergency medicine physician, Dr. Voleti says she’s using operational and leadership lessons gained from her MBA as she makes surge plans for the emergency rooms by using ventilators from the operating rooms that have been left empty from the cancellation of elective surgeries. She is leveraging the geographic distribution of the pandemic to balance the workload by using providers from southern Indiana for virtual consults when communities farther north have a spike in cases.
“During the Physician MBA strategy class, we actually considered a similar scenario in which providers needed to conduct virtual visits across state lines to help with increased demands, but the system didn’t want to eliminate any positions in case demand shifted again later,” she explains. “Now, that scenario has become a reality as we move staff around to manage ICU patients. Staff members are more willing to go outside their scope of practice to treat critical patients with e-ICU and other specialty consults.
“The MBA scenario predicted exactly how it is working right now.”
Closing the Gap
Initially, Dr. Voleti enrolled in Kelley’s physician-only MBA to address the widening gap she experienced between her medical knowledge and business knowledge.
“As a physician, I didn’t think it was my job to worry about the finances; mine was to care for the patients,” she says. “That was the past. Now, we must be concerned about both. If we aren’t knowledgeable on the business of medicine, we won’t be able to provide quality care to our patients.”
Dr. Voleti also felt isolated in the silo of the ED. She didn’t feel connected to other physicians. She says the tight-knit experience of earning her MBA alongside other doctors gave her greater confidence to become more involved.
“I started participating as a member of hospital committees to better understand what was going on around me,” she says. “Shortly after I started the Kelley Physician MBA Program, I was elected as president of medical staff. Now, I’m able to participate thoroughly with more knowledge.”
As Dr. Voleti learned accounting and the economics of healthcare, she also critically examined her leadership style and goals. She now believes leaders aren’t just born – they can be coached and trained to lead. Through executive coaching at the Kelley School, Dr. Voleti learned how to leverage her allies to earn the position she wants.
“I had several allies at my health system, but I’d never expressed my interests to them. After talking with my career coach, I wrote an email to my system CMO explaining my current role, what I’m looking for and my interest in a leadership role,” she says. “When the position of regional associate CMO opened, I was still in my MBA program, and they approached me to offer the job.”
While taking on the role of CMO would be a new experience for Dr. Voleti, she prepared for the position by leveraging the knowledge and expertise of fellow physician MBAs.
“There were several physician leaders in my cohort and others at Kelley who talked with me about their responsibilities and how my work experience translated,” she says. “I was able to complete this groundwork at Kelley before I even approached my allies at work.”
Dr. Voleti finished the 21-month program while working full time as an ER physician and a CMO. She says the structure of the program provided flexibility, allowing her to fit the studies into her already busy schedule.
“In one quarter, Kelley offered finance and marketing. The marketing course involved reading materials during my down time between cases, and I’d do goal setting in the car during my commute,” she says. “Finance required a pen, paper and critical thinking, so I arranged a block of time to complete that work. Each quarter, Kelley matches the courses this way to create flexibility in learning while also provoking creative and analytical parts of the brain.”
Dr. Voleti traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the Healthcare Policy Experience course. Physicians received an up-close lesson in how healthcare policy is developed and implemented and how they can play a greater role. The experience inspired Dr. Voleti to get more involved on the local level.
“For a long time, I’d been a silent member of the Indiana State Medical Association (ISMA). After I completed the healthcare policy course, I realized I can be making changes instead of discussing what should be happening,” she says. “I began participating more actively, and two other physicians in my cohort joined ISMA after that healthcare policy trip.”
As her work intensifies in the face of a global pandemic, Dr. Voleti says she continues to lean on her Kelley School connections, particularly alumni resources. A special webinar series is underway featuring Physician MBA faculty and alumni sharing best practices, strategies and tools for managing this healthcare crisis.
“I’m thankful to Kelley for offering these lectures to help us out – particularly the macroeconomics discussion led by [Associate Dean] Phil Powell and crisis leadership webinar with [Physician MBA Chair] Christopher O.L.H. Porter,” she says. “I’ve been using a lot of this insight right now. As a leader in COVID planning, I can pivot very quickly and be efficient, and these discussions from Kelley have helped me a lot to achieve this.”
Dr. Voleti says the connections she made at Kelley are as valuable as the lessons she learned in the classroom. By understanding how to implement critical problem-solving innovations such as telehealth, she says the future of healthcare will be largely determined within physician MBA classrooms.
“You will meet the other future healthcare leaders in an MBA class. The relationships I gained helped me understand what was happening in systems across the country and how physicians can impact by leading. It’s how we will determine the future of our own health systems.”