Cooper Focused on Improving MED Processes

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

Several months into her new role at The Regional Medical Center at Memphis, Susan Cooper is focusing on what she calls “quick wins” to improve the quality of patient care throughout the regional health system.

She’s working on restructuring processes to reduce wait times at The MED’s clinics, eliminating duplicated services and cutting travel times for staff members who work at more than one location.


Cooper, who previously was Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health, was hired in January to continue building The MED’s relationships with community health partners, the public health system, academia, nonprofits and residents within the 150-mile radius the system serves.

As chief integration officer and senior vice president of ambulatory services, Cooper also is responsible for making sure The MED’s hospital, primary care clinics, and specialty care units function as one cohesive system that serves the wider community.

“If we are smart about things, we will be in the communities and embedded to listen to the needs of the folks we serve,” she said. “We see our communities as our partners as well.”

Cooper is the keynote speaker at a seminar on Health Care Reform on Thursday, April 4, presented by The Daily News and sponsored by Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP, Rainey Kizer Reviere & Bell PLC and Group Benefits LLC.

Cooper may be starting with making many of The MED’s systems more efficient, but her overall vision is much broader: she wants to shift care from acute care delivered at the hospital to outpatient health care delivered outside the traditional hospital walls. Historically, most hospitals have focused on providing acute care, rather than setting up a framework with the wider community to keep patients out of the hospital.

She wants to make sure patients admitted for chronic conditions like diabetes and asthma have access to education to manage their diseases once they leave the hospital and that those same patients can follow up with a provider at a convenient location once they are released. Cooper says that’s part of a shift in the way the industry delivers care from acute care settings to outpatient care across a continuum. When chronic conditions are caught early, properly managed, and in the best case – prevented before they become full-blown conditions; patients stay out of the hospital.

“If you put your best efforts into keeping people healthy, you minimize the need for care,” Cooper said. “We’d much rather provide that care in the community at home and to keep people healthier and out of our acute facility.”

Cooper brings several decades of experience in nursing, health policy and evidence-based practices to her new role at The MED. She made history as the first nurse to serve as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health when she was appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007. Before serving as health commissioner, Cooper helped develop Tennessee’s Health Care Safety Net, a network of public and private health care providers and programs serving the state’s uninsured patients.

She also was the assistant dean for faculty practice at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, where she had administrative responsibilities for the school’s primary care clinic, in which 90 percent of the patient population also were TennCare enrollees.

With her public health background, Cooper says she wants The MED to begin evaluating the populations of patients that they treat, and to use the data to identify patients who might be at risk for developing heart disease, diabetes or other life-long chronic conditions.

While individual care is still “front and center,” she said, The MED and other organizations shouldn’t forget to focus on the health of the whole community.

“That could help us think differently about the types of programs or new services that we will want to develop,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s what we are going to learn about the needs of the community that can truly shift the health in Shelby County.”

Cooper’s initiatives may prove critical to The MED because a provision of the Affordable Care Act permits Medicare to levy financial penalties against hospitals that have too many readmissions. In October 2012, Medicare fined 2,217 hospitals that had too many patient readmissions in the first year of the program, which began on Oct. 1, federal data show. Other rules in the Affordable Care Act tie reimbursement to patient outcomes.

Medical research shows about 10 percent of a patient’s health is directly attributable to the care they receive, another 40 percent is impacted by behavior and lifestyle, about 20 percent is genetics and the rest of a person’s health can be attributed to areas like environmental and social determinants. Cooper is focused on influencing the behavior and lifestyle habits of patients when they walk out of The MED’s doors.

“People make decisions within the environment they find themselves,” Cooper said. “If you take Shelby County as a whole and you look at the drivers of poor health – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, infant mortality – they all exist. The real question is how do we work together to target each one of those.”

Cooper is quick to concede that her long-term goals for The MED won’t happen overnight. So, she’s starting with focusing on improving systems – like patient wait times to ensure better patient flow through the clinics. But longer-term she envisions an integrated system of care that provides a seamless care across the entire spectrum – from acute care to the primary care, with a focus on preventing and managing chronic conditions.

“We want to make sure patients get the self-management education to manage their diseases,” she said. “We want them to be asking, ‘how do I participate in managing my disease as the person that lives with this, rather than letting you, the health care system, take care of my disease?’”

The Daily News Health Care Seminar is Thursday, April 4, at 3:30 p.m. at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Register online by Monday, April 1.