When Sajid Ahmed told some colleagues he was thinking about taking on a startup hospital — one being built on the same time as a facility that closed several years ago amidst a sea of controversy — most of them told him to run. Fast.
“They said, ‘don’t do it. It’ll be the worst thing for you career,’” says Ahmed. “I ended up doing it because of that, and it’s been the craziest and most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
In July, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital opened its doors in Southern Los Angeles, and although there is still a ways to go, Ahmed is proud of what his team has accomplished so far. As Chief Information and Innovation Officer, he was charged with building an IT platform that would enable providers to serve a population of 1.3 million patients, one-third of whom fall below the poverty line.
“We wanted to design a hospital that was state-of-the-art for a community that hadn’t had anything state-of-the-art in a long time,” notes Ahmed, who plans to focus on telehealth and care coordination, knowing that an underserved population means a significant portion of patients who don’t have transportation.
Doing that has required quite a heavy — and unusual — lift, as leadership was charged with designing an EHR with a bare-bones staff and no workflows. Armed with a few clinicians, a chief medical officer, and medical director of quality, he turned to consultants to help fill in the gaps and build workflows virtually, without the people who would be using it.
“It was a challenge, but we did a lot of pre-planning, and said, ‘we’re going to open with the best we have,” says Ahmed, who is already planning “a formal optimization period to enhance our system.”
With such tight margins — both in terms of budget and staffing — there was little room for error, which meant it was critical that the right people were in the right seats. That included physician leaders, who faced a difficult battle in not only onboarding clinicians and practices within a short timeframe, but also managing the demands of physicians who were used to different systems.
For this, Ahmed has relied heavily on Steve Davis, MLK Jr. Community Hospital’s CMIO, who gave him a piece of advice he has held on to.
“It’s all about trust and communication. It might sound corny or basic, but I can’t tell you how important it has been to us, and how much it came up to the surface,” Ahmed notes. “We would not have been able to open a hospital of this caliber on time on budget without trust and communication.”
That’s precisely why in addition to the mantra of “high quality, high touch, high tech,” he also emphasizes that, particularly, in a high-pressure environment, culture must be king.
“You can do project management a certain way — you can have processes, organization, follow-through, but the people really make the difference,” Ahmed notes.
That, and having leaders who are bold enough to take on the most challenging situations.