Patient Wellness: One on One With Thornton Kirby, CEO of the SC Hospital Association

Mollee D. Harper

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

South Carolina CEO sat down with Thornton Kirby, President and CEO for the SC Hospital Association. During our one on one, Kirby shares background and insights into the important role the Association plays in the State’s healthcare system. He also provides details about how the Association’s advocacy focus has expanded over the past decade in concert with national efforts and new regulations in order to improve patient wellness for all South Carolinians with a focus on value over volume.  

Kirby shared, “The SC Hospital Association was founded in 1921. We were built to be an advocacy organization to represent hospitals to regulatory agencies and government. That was the thrust of our work until the mid 2000s when we also became active in the work to improve the quality and safety of hospital care.

“We have just under 100 member hospitals. Virtually all South Carolina hospitals are part of the Association. Everyone who works in a hospital is connected with us so that also includes thousands of professionals.”

Kirby continued, “Our role is really twofold. One is serving as a collective voice for our hospitals and health systems. The second is to help SC institutions improve the health care provided. We do a lot of education as well and networking with and for hospital leaders. Our mission is one of advocacy and quality improvement.”

“The business model is in flux. For years, professionals were paid for each service rendered. We are moving toward a business model that is more about the value of the service provided. We’ve shifted from volume to value,” he said.

“Our country is trying to control the amount of money we spend on health care and remove the incentives for procedures that aren’t necessary. In the past, if you were a provider you made money by doing procedures. In the future, providers will make money by keeping people healthy. That is the fundamental paradigm shift in place today. We are moving toward a wellness model.”

Kirby offered, “You can’t control what happens in Washington and the politics, but you can control the care you provide. South Carolina hospitals have patients first and foremost in their minds. We have to make money to stay in business, but our focus is really on the patients.”

South Carolina Hospital Association is a private, non-profit organization made up of approximately 100 member hospitals and healthcare systems throughout the State. Founded in 1921 to serve as the collective voice of the state’s hospital community, SC Hospital Association has played an integral role of advocacy for South Carolina residents for nearly one hundred years. The Association is proud to add value and support its members in keeping the State’s hospitals and residents healthy.  

“One of the greatest areas of improvement has been in our work with moms and babies. In the past, we had a high infant mortality rate in our State. We have worked hard to impact that number and have seen that number drop over the years. There is a broad coalition focused in this area and it is doing great work.”

“We aren’t just focused on how to make money but how to provide the best care possible. We want to be known for providing excellent care. We compete very well on a national level and are among the best states in quality hospital care.”

`Do no harm’ is at the core of the Hippocratic Oath that physicians and healthcare workers take when they embark on their careers practicing medicine. South Carolina has renewed its commitment to this oath by adopting a goal of zero harm. The SC Safe Care Commitment is an organized coalition between the SC Hospital Association and partners at The Duke Endowment and The Joint Commission Center for Transforming Health that have championed this movement with a zero harm goal.

Over the past few years, South Carolina hospitals have embraced this new approach towards improving quality of care and are now a national model for how to implement reliability programs. After three years of dedicated effort, 43 hospitals have won at least one Zero Harm Award and a total of 258 Zero Harm Awards have been awarded. Some of the achievements for 2016 include: 55,291 central line days without an infection; 9,700 harm-free surgical procedures; and 12 hospitals had 52 consecutive months without a specific type of harm event.

Kirby explained, “Our hospitals, physicians and nurses are all oriented to the care of their patients. We have spent a lot of time over the past decade driving quality care. Our hospital system has set a high bar in the nation for providing quality health care especially in the areas of heart attack care, surgical safety, and reducing hospital infections. We have done a lot of work to strive for zero harm.”

“When we put a patient in the hospital they are exposed to invasive procedures and they are around other sick people. Naturally, we want to make sure we don’t let anything bad happen to them when they are in our care. We want to have the safest hospitals in the country. That is the great body of work we have been focused on. We have seen so many hospitals in our area improving the quality of care. This is the most exciting thing we are doing and we are among the best in the country in safety,” he continued.

“Our hospitals initiated a statewide coalition to improve the overall health of SC. Within our hospital community, even though it is competitive, everyone is really committed to learning from one another, sharing best practices and preparing for disasters like last year’s hurricane. We have a collective statewide commitment, like a family of hospitals and I am really proud to represent them. It is so gratifying to see them work together in tough times.”

“This early success expressed in lives saved and the resulting economic impact strengthens our resolve to focus on safety, raise the bar of expectations, and challenge our hospitals to pursue zero harm. We’re in the business, after all, of saving lives. And that’s what the Zero Harm Awards are all about.”

Thornton Kirby holds his Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives designation and has served as President and CEO for the SC Hospital Association since January 2005. Kirby has an extensive background in hospital administration and the law. He served as Executive Secretary to the Board of Trustees and Executive Assistant to the President for Clemson University. Kirby also served as Vice President for Tuorney Regional Medical Center and worked as an Attorney for Nexsen, Pruet, Jacobs & Pollard. Kirby received his BA degree from University of Virginia in the field of Government and his Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina of Law.

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