Lori Custer Goes Beyond Compliance and Security at Harbin Clinic

After years as a healthcare administrator, a very personal experience changed how Lori Custer views her work and responsibilities

Lori Custer has years of experience supervising coding and billing, managing regulatory and compliance issues, and handling risk management for medical practices of all sizes. However, as chief compliance and privacy officer at Harbin Clinic, her dedication and loyalty go well beyond simple professionalism and commitment. That’s because two months after joining the Harbin team, she was diagnosed with breast cancer after undergoing a routine mammogram as part of the company’s wellness program.

The disease was spotted early, and after a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, Custer is—as she describes it—cancer free and feeling great. But the experience had a huge impact on her, which includes how she views her job, as well as Harbin’s physicians, clinicians, and staff. “I’ll never forget how caring my team was,” Custer says. “My surgeon, Paul Brock, and oncologist, Melissa Dillmon, still check with me outside of office visits to ask how I’m doing—but that’s how they are with all their patients.”

Lori Cluster, Harbin Clinic Photo by Lia Batista

A devoted Christian, Custer was particularly moved by Dr. Brock’s offer to say a prayer for her just before her anesthesia was administered, while simultaneously assuring her that everything would turn out fine. “That meant everything to me,” Custer says. “Ever since, it’s made me feel that we have a responsibility to offer that same kind of hope, devotion, and love to every patient we care for.”

To this day, she continues to thank everyone from the receptionists to the clinical and medical teams. “Every hardworking employee who cares about our patients contributes to Harbin’s success as a business,” Custer says. “I feel privileged that they help make it possible for me to have a job here and to have gotten the treatment I received.” By thanking each person, she intends to help them understand how important their personal contributions are to the life-saving work Harbin does.

“Harbin Clinic and its patients ultimately benefit because of Lori’s positive attitude and how it brings out the best in everyone else,” says Matt Sirmans, president of Garner and Glover Company. “Lori creates a culture where you want to exceed her expectations, so everyone wins.”

Prior to coming to Harbin, Custer earned a law degree, specializing in healthcare and elder law. Her legal training enhanced her work as a health information auditor with Parkview Health in Lansing, Michigan, where she continued working while earning her degree.

Her role at Parkview required week-long rotations of being on-call around-the-clock to address compliance issues for the organization’s eight hospitals. “Being on-call is the best training a compliance officer can have because it makes you think on your feet,” Custer says. “When you’re facing decisions about security or life-and-death issues, legal training helps you think a bit more objectively as you apply legal concepts to the matters that need immediate attention.”

With her dual roles in compliance and privacy, Custer handles a wide variety of responsibilities at Harbin. To help lead the ongoing transition to EMRs, she and her team work extensively with the organization’s approximately 250 providers to ensure appropriate use of the system and ongoing HIPAA compliance. This includes auditing for appropriate coding and billing to ensure timely and comprehensive recording of the entire course of a patient’s care.

The team works with physicians and other staff members individually to remedy such problems, always staying sensitive to the multiple demands on their time and attention. For example, a physician who hasn’t kept track of each and every service he or she has provided may create issues from an audit perspective, but they may be more focused on making time to see an additional patient. “We work very hard to strike a balance between the demands of professional ethics and integrity and the business requirements of keeping the doors open,” Custer explains.

To help raise awareness among Harbin physicians, clinicians, and other staff members, Custer’s department has always distributed HIPAA talking points to highlight a variety of compliance issues. That practice has recently been replaced by Risky Business, a monthly newsletter featuring real-world stories related not only to HIPAA, but also coding, general policies and procedures, and other clinical issues.

Lori Custer takes the time to acknowledge everybody’s contribution to a positive patient experience at Harbin Clinic. Photo by Lia Batista

The new, more accessible format is expected to increase the already high level of engagement throughout Harbin. Even with the old talking points, Custer’s office frequently received calls with follow-up questions, or reports of situations that had been easily handled because of the information provided by the department.

Custer was recently part of the leadership team that created new statements of purpose and values for the organization. The objectives were to create statements that are simple, memorable, and less formal sounding than the previous ones.

The new statement of purpose is: “We are people caring completely for people.” The values are encapsulated by I CARE, which stands for: integrity, compassion, accountability, respect, and excellence. Custer believes that the two statements accurately reflect the ethics and integrity of the Harbin Clinic, which was established in 1871 and still has members of the Harbin family participating as practicing physicians.

“The new statements are easy to understand and to connect with,” she points out. “They apply to all of us—from patients to physicians—and provide tangible ideas that inform how we live our lives inside and outside of our jobs. They’re not just words. They truly are values that we all should strive to live by.”

To be successful in her job, Custer works closely with Andy Goodwin, Harbin’s chief information officer. Like her, Goodwin has worked at much larger hospital systems. They share privacy and security as their top priorities and work cooperatively to continually introduce new best practices to support both endeavors.

Custer also gives tremendous credit to the rest of her team: director of risk management Theresa King, health information manager Tonya West, and compliance auditor Debbie Dawson. “No compliance department can be successful without a coordinated team effort,” she says. “I couldn’t do what I do without them.”

MagMutual joins Harbin Clinic in recognizing Lori Custer as a preeminent leader in the healthcare industry. With a partnership that extends more than 20 years, we are proud to protect and support the physicians and healthcare teams that make Harbin Clinic the gold standard of healthcare in north Georgia.