Albert Wright is putting West Virginia University’s land grant mission to work for the health of West Virginians.
As we read in the news and see around us every day, West Virginia has serious health challenges—diabetes and obesity, smoking, and opioid addiction among them. Helping those who are suffering takes the hands-on, day-to-day work of thousands of dedicated health care practitioners across the state.
But improving the health of West Virginians as a whole requires systemic change. That’s why, this year, we’re honoring six West Virginia health care professionals. As leaders of the largest industry in the state, they are fundamentally changing the ways we think about, practice, and pay for health care. They are our 2023 Changemakers of Care.
As president and CEO of WVU Medicine, Albert Wright takes West Virginia University’s land grant mandate seriously. “Our mission as the academic health system at West Virginia’s flagship land grant university is to improve the health and the health trajectory of the state of West Virginia.” WVU Medicine is making systemic changes under Wright’s watch to keep West Virginians healthier day to day and, at the same time, to make it possible to get any care needed right here at home. It’s a long game, Wright says. “There’s no magic bullet—this is generational change.”
Some advancements are publicly celebratory, like the 10-story, world-class WVU Medicine Children’s hospital that opened in Morgantown last September.
Some are slower, behind-the-scenes transformations—like the gradual expansion of WVU Medicine to encompass a network of now 24 hospitals across the state and region. It’s a structural shift that not only elevates the quality of services at smaller institutions across the state, but also sets the stage for that generational change Wright is talking about.
He highlights three major improvements.
An electronic medical records system that is interoperable across the entire network. “This allows patients to flow from clinics to small hospitals up to a bigger hospital back to home health, and everything—images, labs, prescriptions, physician progress notes—is shared with all of their providers,” Wright explains. “We did not have that a decade ago.” It makes for safer care, because information isn’t lost along the way. And it makes for more cost-effective care, because results are immediately available everywhere—labs run in Ripley or Martinsburg don’t have to be run again if the patient is transferred to Morgantown.
A significant increase in the comprehensiveness of care. Each year, around 300 or 350 West Virginia families need pediatric heart surgery, Wright says. Local hospitals across the state might previously have referred families out of state for that specialized care. But welcoming those hospitals into its network has allowed WVU to hire two renowned pediatric cardiac surgeons—each of whose work is to perform 100 to 150 pediatric open-heart surgeries a year—so these children can be treated in-state.
More specialists than ever are practicing at WVU Medicine’s Trauma Center, its multi-organ transplant center, and other centers of care, providing care for many more West Virginians right here at home.
A high goal: restructuring financial incentives to put patients’ health first. Historically, health care providers work on a fee-for-service model: They get paid for doing things like seeing patients in clinic and ordering labs. It’s not ideal, Wright says. Consider the example of a patient who has congestive heart failure. The hospital could invest in home health equipment that would reduce the patient’s hospital admissions from five times a year to one—a scenario that, under the fee-for-service structure, hurts hospital revenues. “So we want to create a system where we’re incentivized to keep you as healthy as possible and in the lowest-cost setting possible, while still having appropriate financial profitability so we can invest in great things like surgeons and electronic medical records.”
Opened to WVU Medicine employee enrollment on January 1, 2023, Peak Health—a health insurance collaboration between WVU Medicine, Marshall Health, Mountain Health Network, and Valley Health—re-aligns financial incentives to encourage health care system investments that keep people from needing to go into the hospital in the first place. “As a health system CEO, that gets me excited, because I’m not fighting with an insurance company over who gets that dollar,” Wright says. “I now have a financial model where I and all 30,000 of us at WVU Medicine are going to be focused on keeping you as healthy as possible in a proactive fashion. That’s very exciting and somewhat unique.”
Peak Health will add small business and Medicare Advantage options in 2024 and expand from there, he says. He can envision 30% or more of West Virginians eventually enrolled and benefitting.
The momentum behind these changes gives Wright hope. “When you think about healthy states and the best health care in any state, we should be in the top quartile—the top 12 or 13 states in the country,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll be there by 2030, but I think we’ll be well on our way.”