Spectrum Health striving to be nation's leader

January 4, 2011
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When the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital officially opens next week, it will become the latest major addition to the rapidly growing Spectrum Health system — and its most expensive, at $286 million.

The new children’s hospital joins the $100 million Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center that opened in 2004 and the $92 million Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, which came online in 2008, as a significant enhancement to what makes a health system a national leader.

The system’s growth has been just short of astounding, considering Spectrum Health was incorporated just 14 years ago in 1997. Its developing array of hospitals includes Butterworth, Blodgett, Gerber Memorial, Kelsey, Reed City, United and Zeeland Community, which became the most recent affiliate New Year’s Day.

MMPC, the Spectrum Health Medical Group and West Michigan Heart give the system the ability to perform almost all medical procedures, including heart transplants. Spectrum Health also offers a health insurance plan through its affiliate, Priority Health. The system employs 16,700 staff members, has 1,500 physicians and had a 2010 payroll of $915 million. Thomson Reuters named Spectrum a Top 10 Health System in its national ranking last year.

For now, Spectrum Health bills itself as a regional system. But that’s for now, as its ambitions exceed that standing. On its website are these words: “By 2020, Spectrum Health will be the national leader for health.” Reaching that goal in the next nine years would be a monumental achievement for a relatively young system, and would put Spectrum Health in the same provider category as the Mayo and Cleveland clinics and the Sloan-Kettering Institute.

“It’s very, very challenging to achieve Mayo-level status. They’ve got a 120-year headstart on everybody and they have a philosophy and almost a religious-type orientation,” said Michael La Penna, principal of The La Penna Group, a local business that provides the nation’s medical industry with strategic and financial consulting services.

“We here in Grand Rapids have outstanding practitioners and outstanding facilities, but we don’t have the cohesiveness,” he added.

La Penna said that the difference between Spectrum and Mayo is similar to the difference between a university and a military academy. Michigan State University and the Air Force Academy, for instance, are both quality institutions of higher learning. But students at the academy aren’t just there to be educated; they are there to learn a chosen way of life.

“If you go to MSU, you’ll see people walking all over, choosing classes and other things. But if you go to the Air Force Academy in Colorado, that’s one single purpose. Everybody is chosen and groomed. There is a particular philosophy. They’re taking the same classes. There is no deviation from the product. Nobody says, ‘I’d kind of like to take a different physical education class’ or says, ‘I don’t know if I’ll take this elective.’ Well, if you go to Mayo, that’s what Mayo is all about,” he said.

“I give you that analogy because if Spectrum is going to get to Mayo, it’s very, very difficult to do it with a lot of people who used to be with MMPC, and some of them used to be in private practice, and some of them still are in the process of reorganizing themselves to become a part of something or other.”

It’s important to note that the Mayo Clinic got its start in 1892. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center opened even earlier, in 1884, with the Sloan-Kettering Institute debuting in 1948. The Cleveland Clinic began operations in 1921. That means they have had the necessary time to create, develop and reinforce their traditions and the singular philosophies their providers ascribe to and follow.

Time has also given each institution the opportunity to become known worldwide as a leader in specific procedures. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, has been highly recognized for its advancements in the urology and heart fields for years. In contrast, Spectrum performed its first successful heart transplant just months ago.

But La Penna also said that just because it took Mayo, Cleveland and Sloan-Kettering the better part of a century to become so well established in their fields doesn’t mean it will take Spectrum Health that long. Executives at the local system can look toward the older institutions to gain insights on how to reach their goals, and they can even lure key players from those systems here to help direct Spectrum’s drive toward national greatness.

“They don’t have to do the hundred years. They can go see what’s going on and fast-track. For instance, if you want to find how cancer is done, you go to MD Anderson (Cancer Center), you go to Sloan, and you can hire people away from them, bring them in and fast-track it. Sloan-Kettering is publishing the standards by which every other organization benchmarks,” he said.

“If I go to an oncologist’s office, he is going to pull out a book that has been written by people at Sloan. It’s going to be a long time before anybody pulls out a book by people who are here, because they just haven’t had the time.

“Plus, I think our health care system here in Grand Rapids is a little disarticulate and competitive. Nobody competes with Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.”

But La Penna, who is also a noted author on the health care industry, felt the new children’s hospital is a vital building block in Spectrum Health’s determination to achieve the status of a national health leader.

“Absolutely. It’s a solid commitment that the community has made in a direction that’s very important. Many institutions around the country would love to have that facility. But they’re not there, yet,” he said of Spectrum Health’s position in the industry.

“I definitely don’t want to be negative because I think it’s a very admirable thing that everybody is doing. But it’s hard for us in Grand Rapids to see what the future is going to hold. Certainly, the basic building blocks, the intent and the talent are all there.”

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