Lauren Winans of Next Level Benefits: “Increase transparency”

Increase transparency: The basic question all patients want to know is how much their service will cost. For so long, service prices have not been made public, and now that healthcare providers and insurers are more transparent, patients don’t even realize they can locate this information. Patients want to know how much they will be […]

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Increase transparency: The basic question all patients want to know is how much their service will cost. For so long, service prices have not been made public, and now that healthcare providers and insurers are more transparent, patients don’t even realize they can locate this information. Patients want to know how much they will be paying out of pocket before they walk in for the service, and oftentimes that information is confusingly displayed on a website or incredibly hard to find.

The COVID-19 Pandemic taught all of us many things. One of the sectors that the pandemic put a spotlight on was the healthcare industry. The pandemic showed the resilience of the US healthcare system, but it also pointed out some important areas in need of improvement.

In our interview series called “In Light Of The Pandemic, Here Are The 5 Things We Need To Do To Improve The US Healthcare System”, we are interviewing doctors, hospital administrators, nursing home administrators, and healthcare leaders who can share lessons they learned from the pandemic about how we need to improve the US Healthcare System.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure to interview Lauren Winans.

Lauren Winans is the Chief Executive Officer and Principal HR Consultant for Next Level Benefits, an HR consulting practice offering clients access to HR professionals for both short-term and long-term projects. With 20 years of human resources and employee benefits experience, Winans possesses a deep expertise of HR best practices and what resonates with employees. She founded Next Level Benefits in 2019, offering HR teams access to former corporate HR professionals on-demand when they need them most.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into our interview, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and a bit about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout my career, I have focused on human resources and employee benefits administration. I managed all aspects of health, welfare, absence management, and retirement at General Nutrition Centers, CONSOL Energy, and American Eagle Outfitters before working at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, where I acquired an extensive knowledge of the health insurance industry. I am currently the founder of Next Level Benefits, a certified women-owned HR consulting practice offering clients access to HR professionals for both short-term and long-term projects.

I wanted to explore the entrepreneurial and creative side of myself so I took the leap. It was scary but something I have always been thinking about, just waiting for the right moment to start. Our mission is to serve clients as an extension of their teams, creating more “best places to work” in the process.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was serious about starting my own business, I met with a friend of a friend who generously offered to meet with me and share insights into being an entrepreneur. Fast forward to us huddled over a table in a local Starbucks as we reviewed a list of about 7–8 things that she recommended I do to set the wheels in motion. It was such great, actionable advice, and she had no reason to help me other than to help another female become an entrepreneur. After we met, I started to go down the list and check off the various items, and the next thing I knew, Next Level Benefits was born. I still have that list in my desk drawer, and sometimes I think about framing it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At a big fancy fundraising event, the woman sitting beside me introduced herself. I looked down at her nametag and saw that she worked for a local financial firm. I asked, “So what do you do for the company?” She said, “I generally get in the way and talk too much.” Of course, I laughed. The next day, I realized that she was the President and Founder of the firm, practically a local celebrity, and I asked her what her job was… So embarrassing! I learned that on any given day you can run into someone who could change your life, and it is important to ask the right questions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” It’s a Dr. Seuss quote, but I really do think it resonates! I knew that I had the passion inside me to start this business, I just had to start moving in the right direction.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The majority of our recent projects are focused on the future of work and redesigning the workforce. We help employers assess policy, process, and practice to ensure it aligns with their organization’s values, attracting and retaining the right talent. We also help our clients to ensure their employee benefits and compensation are competitive, and that their employee experience is positive. We expect our projects to help create more “best places to work”, helping employees to get what they want and need from their employers.

How would you define an “excellent healthcare provider”?

An excellent healthcare provider is one who shows empathy and a commitment to really being present with their patient. Healthcare providers go from good to great when they are willing to listen to the patient and spend time with them to encourage open dialogue. Personalized care is a time investment, and reflects the provider’s ability to treat the whole patient and not necessarily just the symptom.

I think being responsive enough to dig a little bit deeper or read between the lines is crucial, because sometimes it is very hard for patients to explain what is wrong and takes a lot of courage to do so. Physicians who spend ample time navigating the conversation and asking the right questions are going to make a bigger and better impact on their patients.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. The COVID-19 pandemic has put intense pressure on the American healthcare system. Some healthcare systems were at a complete loss as to how to handle this crisis. Can you share with our readers a few examples of where we’ve seen the U.S. healthcare system struggle? How do you think we can correct these specific issues moving forward?

Even prior to the pandemic, the healthcare system struggled to prioritize whole patient care regardless of social determinants. Many people in this country do not know how to find good care, especially POC and low-income families. People don’t know how much their care costs, and a higher cost doesn’t always equate to a higher quality of care. It will take a combination of industry accountability and legislation to solve these problems. And let me be clear, our nation’s healthcare workers did a truly amazing job during the height of the pandemic, as they continue to do today. It’s not their effort that is being questioned. It’s the system in which they are required to operate in — basically the where, why, how, and to whom we are offering quality care — that requires change.

Of course the story was not entirely negative. Healthcare professionals were true heroes on the front lines of the crisis. The COVID vaccines are saving millions of lives. Can you share a few ways that our healthcare system really did well? If you can, please share a story or example.

Healthcare workers deserve all the credit for their dedication and sacrifice. There is often a focus on the number of lives lost during the pandemic, but there were certainly more lives saved. The heroism that exists within the medical profession in particular is inspiring. The U.S. truly has the greatest medical professionals in the world.

The global advancements in health technology are astounding, and I think that despite the flaws in our healthcare system there are many amazing educators, scientists and individuals who are not only providing care but publishing access to groundbreaking medical information. There is so much development that we are right on the cutting edge of, including miraculous findings for rare conditions. The focus now is a matter of educating the American population on how to advocate for themselves to access it.

The Affordable Care Act also helped to provide access to health insurance, which gave a sense of security to millions of previously uninsured Americans. Even though there are some aspects of the Affordable Care Act that definitely need overhaul and attention, I think the Affordable Care Act generally was a step in the right direction.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. As a healthcare leader can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.

Increase transparency: The basic question all patients want to know is how much their service will cost. For so long, service prices have not been made public, and now that healthcare providers and insurers are more transparent, patients don’t even realize they can locate this information. Patients want to know how much they will be paying out of pocket before they walk in for the service, and oftentimes that information is confusingly displayed on a website or incredibly hard to find.

Evaluate time management: Another step is organizing administrative activities accordingly so that the appropriate time can be spent with the patient. Time has been taken away from the patient and repurposed towards administrative responsibilities like updating charts and documenting consents, and that results in patients not getting the care that they fully need in that moment, which often leads to wasted time and money for all parties involved.

Provide access to quality care: Another step to providing patients with the access to quality care starts with recognizing the barriers to specialized care, including location diversity. For example, if a patient lives in a rural area, they may not have easy access to a cancer specialist because they’re in a pocket of the country where the specialized care is not available. Just like the most-profitable companies in the world use analytics to build consumer strategies, healthcare providers like hospital systems and health departments, could leverage technology to ensure they are staffing the right specialists in the right places to improve accessibility.

Focus on personalization: This is the concept of treating the whole patient, and not just the symptom. I think there is an opportunity to focus on ethics and total care, and that is generally what doctors want to be able to do. Eliminating the time constraints and administrative workload that prevents doctors from being able to treat the whole patient will be critical in facilitating personalized care.

Improve health equity: Many individuals feel that they don’t have access to the best care because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, income level, or where they live. This is especially an issue for minorities and those with preexisting health issues. One of the issues with the current healthcare system is that there is a lack of trust by the average American in the system. Even through the Pandemic, a spotlight has cast upon people in this country that are afraid to go see doctors because they don’t trust them.

Let’s zoom in on this a bit deeper. How do you think we can address the problem of physician shortages?

One of the things that I’ve seen a couple medical schools do is make the tuition incredibly discounted or even free. I actually really like that idea, because I think one of the barriers that people face is not having enough money to further their education or choose medicine as a profession because of the enormous student loan debt that comes with it.

More medical schools that offer the ability to provide for discount scholarships or free tuition would be great, and those that come from a lower income background or are a minority, you know, might be more willing to jump into this profession.

Also getting a better grasp on administrative tasks is going to be another way to combat that shortage. I personally know healthcare providers that are currently practicing, and ones that used to practice medicine, that have left or are looking to leave the profession entirely because it’s gotten too far away from taking care of the patient. I also know doctors that are currently in the profession, that pretty much hate what they do because they spent all their time filling out charts instead of spending time with patients. So a combination of financial incentives for students in medical schools, as well as getting rid of a lot of the administrative tasks will help tremendously.

How do you think we can address the issue of physician diversity?

For addressing physician diversity, knocking down those financial barriers are huge. Providing an opportunity for low-income students to become physicians is the key, and helping people that think ‘you know what, I want to be a doctor so that I can treat patients that look like me and have the same issues as me’ have access to that possibility.

Healthcare systems also have an opportunity to educate their local communities through community enrichment. Providing the community with factual information is crucial, for example even just directing a patient toward what specialists are available, navigating costs, insurance, and resources for them to learn more. Community enrichment helps everyone understand the general healthcare industry better, and is a chance to learn how to get involved themselves. There is an educational component here, and that will help local communities gain more trust with the medical system.

How do you think we can address the issue of physician burnout?

Incorporating more data analytics would be incredibly useful to be able to make sure that healthcare providers have the right people on staff. With adequate staffing models, physicians will be able to support a reasonable amount of patients, not more than they can handle. This will go a long way in combating burnout.

What concrete steps would have to be done to actually manifest all of the changes you mentioned? What can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to help?

Individuals should express their concerns with the system as whole if they experience issues. They can do that through their local government representatives and constituents. Unfortunately, because the healthcare system is somewhat of a profit-center for many of its players and stakeholders, federal and state legislation is most likely what is going to stop the ineffective aspects of the system.

Corporations and their leaders, especially those in the high-tech industry, have a unique opportunity to help the nation leverage technology to solve some of the healthcare system concerns. This is where data analytics could come into play, and utilizing some of those technical technological tools, like using AI to convert conversations to recordings without someone having to type it in can be very helpful.

The healthcare community must also get involved, come together to recognize what’s holding them back from quality care, and then take meaningful steps in the right direction.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I hope that I can inspire a movement of patient advocacy, to establish a better dialogue between healthcare providers and patients.

Patients see physicians as knowledgeable experts, which in most cases they are. There is a comfort in handing your health issue over to an expert — you want them to fix you and they are educated and experienced to do it. But what happens when you are misdiagnosed, not provided the right care, not given clear self-care instructions, and end up back in the physician’s office or hospital? I believe that all patients and their caretakers must advocate for themselves in the healthcare setting. Patients need to better understand their care and their treatment plan, and feel that it’s ok to ask questions like, ‘why are you sending me for an MRI, or how will this new prescription medication help me?’ Great doctors don’t mind answering your questions and educating you on your condition. If you’re met with resistance, then it may make sense to look for another doctor.

I hope that the patient advocacy movement becomes more of the norm. This requires introspective physicians who are willing to understand patients, and also patients to be knowledgeable enough to advocate for their own health.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website to discover more about Next Level Benefits, our recent projects, and our client testimonials. If you find yourself in need of short term HR project assistance, like redesigning your employee benefits package and creating more learning and development opportunities for your employees, you can reach out to me via email or schedule a discovery call via our website.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.

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