Richard Lehmuth

Growing a successful health system

March 04, 2022
by Gus Iversen, Editor in Chief
HCB News: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in healthcare?
Richard Lehmuth: Like many people who work in health administration, I started out by wanting to be a doctor. I was born premature and had spent a lot of time in hospitals and doctors’ offices. In college, I took pre-med courses, but the trajectory of my career changed when I started working for an endocrinologist. She had lost her sight and hired me to read journal articles and other materials out loud for her. As we got to know each other, she provided sage advice on being a physician and I am forever grateful for her counsel.

I took my education in a different direction and during my junior year worked in the writing lab helping another student who was pursuing a Master of Healthcare Administration degree. I fell in love with his homework. It had not occurred to me that there was a business side to healthcare, and I saw it as a path to working in an industry I loved.

HCB News: What learnings did you take with you from your work with other CSOs?
RL: At SSM Health, I worked under a brilliant strategy executive who taught me so much about the science of strategy. Under his strategic direction, the health system won a major national quality award, and he helped me establish and hone my craft. Our team led the regional strategy for the larger system.

During my time at OhioHealth, our work in strategy was at the top of the funnel, leading strategy efforts for the entire system while being able to shape leaders’ points of view. The focus was on building and growing businesses, and ensuring our plans were well-executed. That focus on execution provided another important building block for my career.

What I learned along the way was that the chance to build new businesses was the most exciting part of my work. I took a lot of pride in helping these health systems get bigger and become more successful. That’s the work I love most at Phoenix Children’s.

HCB News: Can you tell us what your career has been like up to this point?
RL: When I first started my career, I worked on the finance side of healthcare. This seemed like a natural fit for me because I excel at math. What I learned over the course of 10 years was that I wanted to solve bigger, more complicated problems. It wasn’t that finance was easy — not at all — it’s that my strengths and interests are in pulling apart complex problems and looking for creative solutions.

At the time, I was working at SSM Health in the Midwest. The health system had just hired a chief strategy officer. She liked the way I approached problems and gave me a great deal of latitude in my work, even creating a role for me that didn’t yet exist. Her mentorship and support really set the stage for my career long-term.

HCB News: How long have you been with Phoenix Children's and what drew you there?
RL: I joined Phoenix Children’s in 2018 for several reasons, but the one most compelling for me was the opportunity to help take the organization from a hospital to a health system. SSM and OhioHealth were big health systems when I walked in the door — my role was to help them grow and become more successful. At Phoenix Children’s, we are in the middle of our journey, growing from one main hospital to a full-scale health system with sites of service across Arizona. This is the work I love most.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the desert and loved sunshine and was excited about the opportunity to move west.

HCB News: Can you tell us a bit about the demographics and patient populations you're serving?
RL: Our problem set is different than many other pediatric systems; our metro area is growing rapidly in terms of number of children being born or moving here, while other metro areas have the opposite problem. Currently, 65% of Arizona’s children live in the Phoenix area.

We need to be on the pulse of understanding our community, and where it’s growing, and how it’s changing. We are in the fastest-growing county in the country, and one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the entire country, as well.

Organizations such as the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Urban Land Institute are doing work in building and shaping the way Phoenix is growing. They are trusted partners in helping us understand where we need to grow in the future to be of the most service to our community.

Fortunately, most children are very healthy. But when we are considering which communities to expand into, we need to be able to reach fairly large numbers of children with as short a drive time for them as possible. We need to consider what is a sustainable business but laid out in a way that works for families and helps them fit into our larger enterprise, as well.

HCB News: Are there any special projects or initiatives you're undertaking or planning to undertake?
RL: I have a passion for building and growing. At Phoenix Children’s, I am working with our physician-in-chief and surgeon-in-chief to lay out our growth strategy, particularly in the West Valley region of the metro area. It’s more than just opening new sites, it’s taking a close look at the needs of families here and determining the best plan for meeting those needs, now and in the future.

It’s also about helping Phoenix Children’s rebrand itself as a system of care providing the full continuum of care versus a single hospital focused on medically complex patients. We’ve been Arizona’s answer for complex children’s healthcare since we opened in 1983. We treat the most complex cases and offer services in 75 pediatric subspecialties.

Now, our scope has expanded dramatically. We offer general pediatrics, primary care, sports medicine, urgent care and other specialty services. We’re a solution for healthy children, too.

HCB News: What are the biggest differences between your current role and your previous role with OhioHealth?
RL: Many people don’t realize the complexities of working in pediatrics. We don’t just treat the child — we truly care for the whole family.

At Phoenix Children’s, we are deeply connected to our mission to provide hope, healing and the best healthcare for children and their families. We are privileged to do what we are doing. That spirit was alive and well at SSM Health, as well.

OhioHealth’s strategy team was more entrepreneurial in nature. There were other departments that focused on filling gaps in the delivery system, but our role as business strategists was to build and grow lines of business.

My current role at Phoenix Children’s is a blend of the sense of privilege and responsibility we felt at SSM, and the entrepreneurial spirit of OhioHealth.

HCB News: What has the experience and response to COVID-19 been like at Phoenix Children’s?
RL: The last two years of the pandemic have represented some of the most difficult in Phoenix Children’s history. The abrupt suspension of elective procedures, a dramatic drop in patient volumes, a system-wide shift to telehealth and a litany of other operational and financial considerations have challenged our health system in countless ways.

Despite the hardships of the pandemic, I am so proud of what Phoenix Children’s has accomplished. Perhaps our biggest success is our continued focus on our strategic goals, including physical expansion across greater Phoenix.

As Maricopa County continues to grow at record-breaking speed, so does our population of children and families — and so do the demands for healthcare. In our sprawling metropolis, we are focused on expanding our sites of service to bring care closer to home for Arizona families. This work never slowed during the pandemic.

In the last year alone, we announced five major expansion projects totaling more than $200 million, including a new hospital, free-standing emergency department, multispecialty clinics and sports medicine clinics. We have also continued work on a new hospital and Women and Children’s Pavilion in greater Phoenix’s East Valley region, which will open next year in partnership with Dignity Health.

Ultimately, our goal is to improve access to high-quality pediatric care for families in every corner of the state.

HCB News: Do you see the pandemic altering care delivery in any fundamental, long-term ways?
RL: A bright spot of the pandemic was the healthcare industry’s willingness to fund and deploy virtual care delivery. We knew telehealth was critical to providing access to care during the pandemic, but it’s clear this model is here to stay, and the benefits go well beyond what we anticipated. It’s now a core part of Phoenix Children’s healthcare delivery. This is especially meaningful for families in rural communities, where it can be challenging to stand up new programs. They can now more easily seek they care they need, from the comfort of their own home.

Virtual care is proving to be transformative for mental and behavioral health, as well. The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health emergency among children and teens, yet the nation is grappling with a critical shortage of pediatric mental health providers. The virtual model will help us close the gaps in care and may prove superior to the traditional model in many other ways, too. For example, last year we noted a 30% reduction in the no-show rate when we moved behavioral health visits from in-person to online.