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Integrating Saint Joseph's and Emory: The steps ahead

Now that the ink has dried on the partnership agreement between Emory Healthcare and Saint Joseph's Health System, a major task ahead is transitioning Saint Joseph's operating and clinical systems into Emory Healthcare's. One person at the center of this process is Sonal Owings, Emory Healthcare's integration strategies administrator.

Fortunately, Owings has traveled this road before, having helped lead the still-ongoing transition process for Emory Johns Creek Hospital after Emory Healthcare purchased HCA's interest in that facility last March. Saint Joseph's is bigger and much older than Emory Johns Creek, with a larger cultural difference, including affiliation with the Catholic Church.

With Emory Johns Creek, Owings first identified areas for transition—human resources, finances, materials management, billing, collections, and electronic medical records, to name a few—and then paired up the appropriate program heads from Emory Johns Creek and Emory Healthcare, assigning a project manager for each transition area. Much of her time has been spent in meetings with these managers, examining the task list of what needs to be done, measuring progress, and identifying problems and risks.

The goal for Saint Joseph's is to complete stage 1 of the transition (human resources, materials management, payroll, and a mini-conversion of the financial system) in early 2012. Stage 2 will involve changing over the entire clinical system, from medical records to billing and collections.

Owings, who reports to Emory Healthcare CFO Jimmy Hatcher, says her job is part "glorified project manager, part cat herder, and part troubleshooter." The aspect of her job that is often the hardest is alleviating fear and building trust. During any merger, employees are understandably concerned about their jobs and what will change. As for jobs, at Emory Johns Creek, no employee was laid off due to the transition. As for culture, Owings says, "If we can't move these hospitals into the Emory Healthcare system and processes while still maintaining their own community identity and culture, we will have failed."

Owings likes to say that being the first integration strategies administrator is not the only Emory Healthcare "guinea pig" job she has held. She was in the first class of Emory Healthcare's administrative fellows in 2004-2005, mentored by Shari Capers, AVP for strategic planning. Then, after working for Patrick Hammond, chief market services officer, for more than two years, she served as administrator of clinic operations for dermatology, the flagship clinic section implementing initiatives to create the ideal patient experience at The Emory Clinic.

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