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August 5, 2013 Shop Talk

Q&A With Dr. Armin Ernst Of Reliant Medical Group

Dr. Armin Ernst, president and CEO, Reliant Medical Group, Worcester

Like his predecessor, Jack Dutzar, Armin Ernst is both a physician and a CEO. Amid the maelstrom of change that's engulfing the health care industry, several providers — including UMass Memorial Health Care — are turning to practitioners who can merge business savvy with how care is delivered. Dr. Ernst, a native German, came to Reliant earlier this year after serving as a vice president for Steward Health Care.

As a doctor who is also a chief executive, do you think more doctors should consider that career path today?

Absolutely. This is a time, in my mind, when there is a huge and growing need for physician executives. This is not just about running complex organizations; this is about improving quality of care for patients, facilitating patient experiences, retaining physicians and, in my mind, (there is) nobody better than physicians who are actually interested in administration as well (to) pull this off.

We’re obviously in a time of great change in the health care industry. What does Reliant see as its “sweet spot” over the next two years, as the state and country move ahead with health care reform?

Reliant (going back to its time when it was known as Fallon Clinic) has had not just a local and regional but (a) national reputation for quality of care and the ability to manage budgets, really providing fabulous patient care in a fiscally responsible fashion. This is something … that puts Reliant in an excellent position to do well in this changing health care environment where exactly those qualities are going to be emphasized.

How have the recent openings of pharmacies and the new facility in Holden helped in that regard?

It really goes back to integrating all aspects of care and making it as convenient as possible for patients, being respectful of their time. You have a visit to your physician, you need prescriptions filled, you have it done right then and there. Your questions that you may have around the prescriptions get answered. The pharmacist knows the physician, the physician knows the pharmacist, everybody knows the patient. It really completely aligns with everything we're trying to do here.

You came to this job from Steward Health Care, an accountable care organization, which Reliant also is. How critical has that been for your transition into this role?

Every little bit of experience helps, and (I) had a fabulous time with Steward. What I really appreciated there was the ability to help create something completely new ... and really see what can be done if you bring people together who focus on one goal.

Do cost pressures in the health care industry make it tougher to recruit doctors? Or might there be downward pressure on medical salaries in the coming years?

I do think there will be pressure on medical salaries. But the question is what do you emphasize? What do you pay a salary for? And I think we're moving in a good direction. A salary should be paid for high-quality care, for taking care of somebody when they're sick but also preventing somebody from getting sick. The salary structure and the reimbursement structure that we have had over the last 20 years that really just rewarded— generally speaking — just how much and how often you provided care is inadequate.

Reliant now has two ReadyMED sites in the area, in Shrewsbury and now in Auburn, which try to ease the burden on emergency rooms. Has it been catching on well, and how much of a difference can it make?

That's been truly one of our success stories, I would say. I think it goes to show the foresight of the organization. Emergency rooms are now among the most expensive pieces of the health care system. If you can move any care out of an emergency room that does not belong there, you can save the health care system enormous amounts of money, and the inconvenience to the patients. You can go to a ReadyMED site at your time, and you can be seen very quickly and you don't have to wait for hours (as you might in an emergency room).

I asked this same question of your predecessor two years ago: What advice would you give to anyone today who wants to be a doctor?

I have three children and I'm still hopeful that they'll ask me one day for advice on what they should be. For me, this has been the most rewarding career I can think of. I would not change it for anything and I would pass on the advice: If you really want to make a difference in the world, this is a great job to do.


Shop Talk - Dr. Armin Ernst, Reliant Medical Group

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