With optimism to move out of the pandemic, HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh has meaningful goals to keep up the pace of change to improve the community’s health and wellbeing.
Firmly established in the belief that healthcare is built on trusted relationships, Andrea Walsh is leading HealthPartners through the next phase of the pandemic with care and grace. Our conversation with the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 2021 Executive of the Year revealed her passion for health and wellbeing, commitment to collaboration, and ability to achieve results that make a difference – for the organization and the community.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, Andrea spent her childhood in the Midwest. She returned to Kansas for her undergraduate college degree, attending the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk) for a degree in Business and English to pursue her passion around language and communications. Like every college senior, Andrea considered her various career paths and ultimately decided to pursue a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School. “I thought a law degree would allow me to blend that business and English background in a different way than an MBA,” shared Walsh.
So, how did she get here, as the Chief Executive Officer of the largest consumer governed nonprofit health care organization in the nation? “I come from a healthcare family. My dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all physicians. Living in a family surrounded by healthcare for the majority of my life, interestingly, I didn’t think that healthcare was where I would necessarily end up,” she says with a laugh.
Walsh made several interesting stops throughout her career before ending up at HealthPartners. One of her earliest working experiences started at St. Mary’s hospital cooking and serving in the cafeteria – an early taste of the health care system. During law school, she enjoyed the moot court litigation courses and began her litigation career at Rider Bennett.
“That firm was fantastic – great people, I learned a lot.”
When presented with the opportunity to switch gears, Walsh seized the moment to leave the legal practice and join the Minnesota Health Department in a role as Assistant Commissioner. During a change in administration, Governor Carlson was interested in filling his cabinet with individuals spanning broad and deep experience in diverse areas. “I was selected to serve in that role, and, for me, that really opened up a lot of opportunities to learn and understand public policy in new ways. It tapped into my passion around healthcare,” shared Walsh.
In 1994, Andrea jumped back into healthcare and landed at HealthPartners, where she would hold numerous different roles across the organization. Her diverse experience, spanning from Government & Community Relations, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Marketing Officer, prepared her to lead the company.
“Having the opportunity to serve in a lot of different roles [helped me] to know and understand the needs of our patients, members, and colleagues in different ways. It’s been a really fantastic place for me to spend a career,” Walsh explained.
While some organizations typecast employees into a particular role and path, HealthPartners encourages the opposite and supports employees in transferring across the organization to gain broader experience. “Being able to move around without being labeled has kept me – and many leaders – at HealthPartners,” she says while adding, “It’s intellectually challenging and leads to more fulfilling work.”
For the past four years, Walsh has been at the helm of HealthPartners as CEO, helping the organization move forward in its mission to improve health and wellbeing. Like nearly every leader at the onset of the pandemic, Walsh faced – dare we say it – unprecedented circumstances. “One thing was clear – we needed to adapt quickly and use all of our capabilities to care for our members, patients, and colleagues and support their health,” stated Walsh.
The HealthPartners team did just that.
In the early phase of the pandemic, the organization moved to video visits in one week and trained over 2,000 clinicians to use Google Duo in a matter of four days. Within six weeks, video visits constituted half of all appointments. “By February [of 2021], we hit the one-millionth video visit mark!” exclaimed Walsh. HealthPartners offered telemedicine before the pandemic, but the entire healthcare industry underutilized the service. “For comparison, we had conducted a few hundred video visits before the pandemic, and we weren’t sure whether it could replace a telephone or in-person visit. Now we know how important video visits will be in the future,” she says.
For many organizations, the pandemic jumpstarted productivity in an unmatched way. HealthPartners is no exception – the advanced pace of innovation and adaptability synonymous with the early stages of the pandemic is a silver lining in the crisis. “One of the bright spots for us is [learning] we can move fast and take bold steps forward. That it’s possible – and still occurring,” revealed Walsh.
HealthPartners is maintaining the momentum to make changes and meet needs as urgently and quickly as possible. “I see that showing up today in the work we’re doing around vaccination,” she shares.
"We believe that health is built on trusted relationships, and technology is an important part of that.”
To reach patients of color and ensure vaccine equity exists across the population, HealthPartners is scrutinizing and pivoting communication efforts. “As we started to send out invitations for vaccinations via email, we noticed that our Hispanic members and patients weren’t scheduling appointments,” explained Walsh. “We shifted to text and sent out 700 messages to English-speaking Hispanic patients – within two hours, eighty people responded to schedule an appointment. It’s a great example of meeting people where they are and using technology to solve a problem,” she says.
Now HealthPartners has translated texts into Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. “Pre-COVID, we might have taken that step, but over the course of several months. Our mindset now is [focused on] when we get our vaccine; we want to get shots in arms within three days of our shipment. COVID created urgency and a need for speed,” Walsh expressed.
The next challenge is making the pace of change sustainable going forward. “We’re going to need to move faster than we’ve moved historically,” Walsh shares; however, “Some of the paces of change needs to slow up so people can catch their breath and we can find a new normal.”
Employee burnout is a particular consideration. “We’re really conscious of that. We’re doing a lot of checking in with colleagues,” asserted Walsh. Across the organization, caregivers and office workers alike faced a tough year. To combat employee fatigue, HealthPartners unveiled many new web and mobile tools to help support colleagues. Wellbeats, for example, is an online and mobile fitness platform that offers 500+ classes ranging from yoga and mindfulness to biking and strength training. “We moved what would have formerly been outside […] onto screens,” she says.
Studies show there is power in connection at work, and these tools offer another form of support for coworkers. Taking care of mental and physical health at work is key to avoiding burnout. “We need to be in for a marathon, not a sprint. You can run a series of sprints for so long – it creates muscle and strength – but rest is important,” acknowledged Walsh.
THE DYNAMICS OF TECHNOLOGY
Technology underpins nearly every pivot HealthPartners made through the pandemic. “Over the past year, technology has given us important tools to stay safe and stay connected,” voiced Walsh.
HealthPartners recognizes the vital role technology plays in achieving its very mission. “We believe that health is built on trusted relationships, and technology is an important part of that,” asserted Walsh. The IT department is in lock-step with the rest of the organization every step of the way – a seemingly rare quality in larger organizations.
It’s not always easy to foster a collaborative culture, especially when there are historical barriers between business and IT. “The clarity around our purpose, our priorities, and why we do what we do creates alignment,” described Walsh. “I feel really good about the interaction across our organization and the partnership between our information technology teams and the connections with the rest of the organization. We are one HealthPartners,” she elaborates
Trust is the foundation of collaboration at HealthPartners. “We really focus on every single interaction. Each gives you the opportunity to build trust or break it,” declares Walsh. “Building trust involves knowing and caring about the people you’re working with and the problems you’re looking to solve,” she adds.
So often in healthcare, workers are deeply entrenched in the day-to-day and possess a career of healthcare knowledge. Looking at problems from the consumer side can be challenging. “It’s easy when you’re sitting in a health system to assume you know the problem someone is trying to solve because you think you’ve seen it before. If you don’t take the time to really listen and understand someone – you may solve a problem; it just may not be the problem most relevant to the health care consumer,” Walsh explained.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
What does the future hold for HealthPartners? An unwavering commitment to the mission. Last year, the organization unveiled a new set of ambitious health objectives called “2025 Partners for Better Health Goals.” These align with the company’s efforts to improve health and wellbeing, increase affordability, and create the best experience possible.
As part of these efforts, HealthPartners plans to:
- Emphasize their new summary measure of health and wellbeing to provide an overall measure of success and progress towards improving health and wellbeing in the population.
- Monitor patient-reported outcomes to reveal whether the care provided produces the outcomes patients expect.
- Focus on partnerships in the community since most of what contributes to individual health and wellbeing happen outside the care system.
- Create care and coverage that is simple and affordable for patients and members.
- Prioritize a healthy start for every child and eliminate health care disparities for women and children of color.
“We have used a lot of our COVID experience to “road test” the plan – what we learned over the past year, where do we need to accelerate or do things differently,” described Walsh. “Setting our 2025 goals helps us articulate what it looks like when we achieve our vision and mission,” she added.
"My hope is that as a community, we don’t take our foot off the accelerator to bring about change in so many needed areas."
Making healthcare and coverage simple and affordable is a huge priority for HealthPartners. Likewise, eliminating healthcare disparities for women and children, emphasizing women and children of color, tops the list. “There are inequities in the Twin Cities community – some of the worst in the nation – our goal is to eliminate healthcare disparities in maternal and infant health,” emphasized Walsh.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that Andrea has optimism for the future as we come out of the pandemic. “My hope is that as a community, we don’t take our foot off the accelerator to bring about change in so many needed areas,” she states.
Undoubtedly, Walsh will be at the forefront, pressing forward to make a difference in her community’s health and wellbeing.
HealthPartners is an integrated, nonprofit health care provider and health insurance company based in Bloomington, Minnesota. Founded in 1957, HealthPartners commits to improve health and wellbeing in partnership with members, patients, and the community. Their focus is on making health care simpler and more affordable.