The Pediatric Potential

Children’s National Health System executive VP and chief strategy officer Elizabeth Flury sees the future of medicine in a field right under our noses—pediatrics

It’s a lyric that’s become ingrained in our culture to the point of ubiquity, but “the children are our future” is a motto that Elizabeth Flury holds true—or, more precisely, she believes that the clinical medicine and research advanced by the physicians who care for the children are our future.

Flury is executive VP and chief strategy officer for Children’s National Health System, the Washington, DC, area’s exclusive provider of pediatric care and one of the top National Institute of Health-funded pediatric institutions in the country. One of her main responsibilities is to help the Children’s National staff and faculty understand—and redefine—the value of what they do in a consistently changing marketplace.

“What I mean by that is, we’re all protectors of the organization’s mission, and my role as the chief strategy officer is critically important in that discussion,” Flury elaborates. “I help our organization honor past successes without being limited by those same successes in a new marketplace. Guiding Children’s National to be increasingly relevant today is an important part of what I do.”

This is the first time that Flury has worked with a standalone children’s hospital. Up until now, her career has been spent in major academic health systems, where pediatrics was just a piece of their offering.

Despite the lack of exposure to full-on pediatric care, Flury’s years working at one of the nation’s top academic systems—and prior to that in a consulting role in the healthcare industry—have prepared her for her current position. Her previous experience has been key in helping her grasp and understand the operating environment and market at Children’s National.

“I’ve seen the same thing sliced and diced about twenty-five different ways,” she says. “All of that experience has led to being better at understanding the cultural environment I find myself in. I’m better able to develop a strategy with my colleagues that can really take on its own life and be fulfilled within the organization.”

Flury is committed to pushing a health system that she finds overly geared for the baby-boomer generation toward meeting the needs of millennial parents. Most health systems over-cater to baby boomers through adult medical services.

Flury and her team plan differently, as their customer base is increasingly composed of millennials making decisions for their own children.

So, while baby boomers might be willing to wait a week or two to have an appointment with specialists, Children’s National knows its targeted audience won’t wait that long. There’s a bigger demand for immediacy among millennials, and Flury and her Children’s National colleagues are working to meet that demand.

“We’ve seen primary and urgent care show up at Walgreens, Wal-Mart, CVS, and on many street corners both within the city and suburban strip malls because they understand that this cohort values immediacy, access, and convenience,” Flury says. “Retail providers have created a whole new sector of competition in healthcare.”

To enhance immediacy and access, Children’s National rebuilt its website, moving to a cleaner look and a responsive design that, translates well to smart phones and tablets—critical for a developed mobile market like the DC metro area.

“It’s worked out well for us, but we’re never done,” Flury says. “We know that millennials rely on web search to research and make healthcare choices, and that they are social and visual learners. We’re involved in additional development to strengthen our search results, create richer multimedia content, and create a more personalized experience on the web.”

Children’s National has also extended hours in its clinics so that they’re open during the evenings and weekends. It also includes the family as a part of the decision-making team when a child is in the hospital. Such measures are not only about getting millennials to bring their child to Children’s National, but also to create a relationship that will make it the parents’ “go-to medical source.”

“Millennials are interested in a lifetime relationship with brands that give back,” Flury says. “The opportunity we have in nonprofit healthcare is to establish the life-long relationship with this cohort by becoming better at communicating and sharing the community benefit that we provide.”

Flury remembers her first visit to Children’s National. Scientists were not working in silos, she recalls—they were working together. Their research benches were on wheels; there were whiteboards with diverse thoughts and ideas along the walls; there were robots, devices, and video games. Innovation was not something people were talking about—they were engaged in it.

She realized then that if the future of medicine were indeed in pediatrics, then Children’s National could be its epicenter, and soon left Johns Hopkins to join Children’s.

While Flury credits her experiences in adult care for preparing her well for her role in pediatrics, she saw the highly structured environment in large, mature systems as not always conducive to true collaboration. “I believe that in my lifetime, pediatric science will be able to cure adult onset disease in childhood before a child ever develops a major chronic condition,” Flury says, adding that she sees this happening through the use of genomics; doctors will be able to know what a child’s likelihood of developing a disease like diabetes is based on their genome when they are born. Pediatricians would then be able to intervene and correct the DNA structure so that a child doesn’t grow up with lifelong chronic health conditions like those of so many other previous generations.

This is an optimistic view, Flury concedes, and doesn’t come without its challenges. The main obstacle is the structure and model of health insurance in the United States. Flury recalls speaking with a CEO for a major for-profit health insurer about leveraging science to find a way to either eliminate or minimize the number of children that grow up with diabetes. The conversation was met with little interest, as the CEO didn’t see it fitting his business model. To him, it didn’t make sense to prepay to cure a disease for a child who probably wouldn’t have it until he or she was older and not a member of the CEO’s insurance company.

“That was so incredibly disheartening,” Flury says. “I think the business of healthcare on the insurance and the research side are really not well synced. I think opportunities are going to be created with more health systems becoming payers and more providers taking on risk.

“With a change of mind, they can flip the paradigm, and I hope we live to see it.” AHL