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While Gene Austin, the recently appointed CEO of the Kansas City Orthopedic Alliance and Kansas City Orthopaedic Institute, brings a management perspective to his role, he believes health care systems succeed when they treat patients with empathy — not like transactions.

That belief falls in line with his motto that health care is a relationship business. Austin, who stepped into the CEO role in January, joined as KCOI is paving new ground through two acquisitions, including Midwest Orthopaedics, located at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission campus, and the Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Clinic of Kansas City.

Those new acquisitions harkened back to the KCOA’s inception in 2020, when three of the area’s orthopedic and sport medicine practices merged. The mergers, which included two practices working out of the KCOI hospital, established KCOA as the largest independently owned local orthopedic practice.

For his new role, Austin brings decades of experience previously working as the CEO at the Columbia Orthopaedic Group. There he oversaw a team of 26 physicians and one facility, which went through an expansion in 2008. At KCOI, he now oversees 40 surgeons across seven locations.

We talked to him about his plans as CEO and what keeps him driven working in health care. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What are your goals?
I was drawn to working with the Kansas City Orthopedic Alliance and Kansas City Orthopaedic Institute because of the long and rich history those organizations have providing care to folks in the area.

The physicians at KCOA and KCOI were looking for a leader who could attract more physicians to the organization and help it continue to grow, through expanding its services and the communities it serves. I want to maintain its reputation for providing excellent care but also find new opportunities to expand our services more broadly.

Part of our growth plan is the latest acquisitions we had in January. It’s important for health care systems to always consider taking advantage of possible synergisms through mergers.

Acquiring Midwest Orthopaedics brings us into a new market in Shawnee, which we haven’t served before. The second merger with the Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Clinic of Kansas City is helping us streamline our operations on our home turf in Leawood, where it’s already housed in the KCOI building.

How does being ‘physician-owned’ play into KCOI and KCOA’s health care model?
Every physician at KCOI and KCOA gets a seat at board meetings. They have a say in the decisions made at KCOI and KCOA. The physicians can determine what they think is in the best interest for the patient and for their quality of health care — without having to answer to outside capital sources.

This allows us to operate more efficiently, but also enables employees to make decisions that they believe will have a positive impact on their patients. Certainly everybody has other business partners, lenders, relationships and hospital partners that can influence those decisions. But health care is very much a team sport. Nobody does it all on their own.

How has health care and your drive to serve others influenced how you spend your time outside of the industry?
I’m always looking for opportunities to give back to the surrounding community. For example, my wife and I directed a camp for children with cancer for many years.

Family is also important to us, and working with KCOI and KCOA brings us closer to them. Our youngest daughter and other family members live in the Kansas City metro area. In total, we have three children and seven grandchildren.

Since moving to Mission, Kansas, my wife and I have been remodeling a midcentury home.

Health care is a hard industry to be an executive in. You’re juggling tight profit margins, high operating costs and labor shortages. What drew you to the industry and what keeps you motivated working in health care?
My mom was a nurse, and I grew up believing you could make a difference in people’s lives in health care. I got to witness that first-hand in my first job in health care working as an onsite manager of a 20-person physician group. After that, I worked at the Columbia Orthopaedic Group, the town where I got my masters in health care administration and management at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But it’s also a challenging industry. There are regulatory challenges. There are financial challenges. But at the end of the day, the biggest challenge for health care institutions is enhancing the quality of life for somebody else — even if it’s as simple as an empathetic smile and a listening ear while you’re in the process of delivering care. In an increasingly depersonalized society, those things make a difference and will set successful health care organizations apart.

That mission echoes a key lesson I learned during the more than 20 years I was CEO at the Columbia Orthopaedic Group: health care is a relationship business. We don’t tend to refer to patients as customers, but it is important to recognize that we all have constituents we need to provide services for — from our physicians, outside parties, patients or their families.

Some days in health care can be really hectic. But it’s important to remember that it may be a patient’s first time visiting us or maybe their first encounter with health care in general. We always treating patients with a sense of empathy, compassion and dignity so that when they leave, they’ll say, “That was great. I’m coming back to that place again.” None of us want to be treated like a transaction.

SOURCE: KCOI’s new CEO aims to lead health care organizations as relationship businesses – Kansas City Business Journal (bizjournals.com)

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