Five Observations: First Friday on Transforming Health Care with Jennifer DeCubellis

Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO of Hennepin Healthcare, joined Dr. MayKao Hang, founding dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at University of St. Thomas, on Feb. 4 for the First Friday Speaker Series to discuss opportunities surrounding health care as well as challenges, such as systemic racism, that must be addressed within the sector.

DeCubellis sits on the advisory board of the Morrison Family College of Health. Here are five observations from the conversation.

We need to design programs around people

Jennifer DeCubellis began her career working in special education. While employed at a school in Chicago at age 21, DeCubellis put a program together with 8-21-year-old children who had emotional and behavioral disorders, had high needs and were not achieving in school.

“[We] put a program together in working with them and their families and ended up launching an article [on] the cover of the newspaper that really gave us accolades for how we had moved these young people into really investing in their education and being inspired,” she said.

After being called into administration, DeCubellis anticipated praise for her efforts, but was instead met with disdain from her leadership.

“What I heard was, ‘Jennifer you need to stop doing what you are doing because it doesn’t follow the philosophy of our school,’” she said.

On the spot, DeCubellis resigned after realizing she was being asked to trade her values of knowing what was right for these young people, for putting people into a program that wasn’t working for them.

She then went on to work in clinical psychology and eventually health care.

“What I’ve really found is that we have way too many programs and structures that put people into programs versus making sure programs are meant to help people,” she said.

She said she has dedicated her career to making a difference for the community.

Systemic racism needs to end in our health care system

At Hennepin Healthcare, 60% of those served are people of color while 70% are on public programs, which adds barriers to care. DeCubellis said Hennepin Healthcare sees what is not working in health care firsthand.

“It's well known that Minnesota is the top health care state. We tend to be the top 1, 2, 3, 4 in most health indicators. As soon as you sort it by race, were competing for 46th, 47th and sometimes 48th in the United States, which tells you that it is not a resource issues, talent issue or skillset, it's that our health system has systemic racism embedded in it,” she said.

Because of the population Hennepin Healthcare serves with, the organization is working to transform the health care system.

“We are really intentionally working on what are those underpinnings, listening to community [and] what matters to them in their health care, what do they need from us and how do we make sure we are investing in undoing those systemic barriers that are getting in people's way,” she said.

In addition, Hennepin Healthcare has encouraged their workers to view each patient as an individual with independent needs.

“What matters to you is where we should all start, not what I think you need,” she said.

Being well should be easy, not a full-time job

If there is one thing that these past few years have shown us amidst the pandemic, it is how critical a focus on health and wellness is for ourselves and the community, DeCubellis said.

“What we really have done is looked at the structures that need to change in health and equities,” she explained.

Hennepin Healthcare determined that people shouldn't come to them and struggle to figure out their system. Rather, the partnerships are already in our communities that can “bridge the social determinants.”

Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO of Hennepin Healthcare

Whether the barrier is transportation or childcare related or something else, DeCubellis said Hennepin Healthcare has been motivated to create a system that teams together so individuals don’t have to figure out how to receive proper care. The organization strives to make being well easy rather than a full-time job.

“For people on public programs in particular, it’s a full-time job just to keep benefits, stay on benefits [and] jump through all the hoops to get to an appointment,” she said.

Access to health care should be easier

In efforts to create easy access to their services, DeCubellis said Hennepin Healthcare has been taking advantage of opportunities in front of them and ultimately have been working to wrap support around those in our community who need it most.

“We have an opportunity right now. We have technology that’s making virtual health care a little bit easier. We have community partners that are opening their doors to us and if we can all lean into that and not worry about our share of the pie, but to truly leverage each other, I think that’s the game changer for the community,” she said.

To maximize on this opportunity, Health care workers have had to adjust their perception of themselves and role in the health care system. Over the years, Hennepin Healthcare professionals have shifted from seeing themselves as experts, to seeing themselves as partners with their patients. That team environment filled with people who have focused on specific areas within health care has been a critical move.

“None of us have the expertise to do everything. Care gets fragmented really fast if we don’t have social workers working alongside physicians, nurses, unemployment coach[s] or a housing support. All of those are important individuals in an individual's path to wellness. We need to create those systems,” she said.

We are at a pivot point for health care

“We are having conversations that are uncomfortable, that are contentious, and it's creating that safe community and safe table to have those hard conversations and to all stay at the table together and move forward with changes,” she explained.

Hennepin Healthcare continues to work to fill the gaps in the bridge to easy, accessible health care while making sure every voice in the community is heard, DeCubellis said. Although, she said, she cannot say Hennepin Healthcare has fully succeeded in creating an ideal environment for their clients and employees alike, they fully understand there is not a rock that shouldn’t be turned over.

Confidently, DeCubellis said they know they are headed in the right direction and continue to be educated as they progress.

“As a teaching organization, we often talk about that growth mindset and coming into it with a learning lens and how do we hold each other accountable when we’ve taken a misstep or when we have something that we should be learning,” she said.

These conversations, and others surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion must continue to be had within the state in order to transform health care in a greater manner.

“We are all different people, and we have to be flexible enough to not put people into a way of providing care and really figure out how we can best provide that care with them,” she said.

Whether it is the pandemic of racism or the pandemic of COVID, DeCubellis explained our community has the chance to come together in new and exciting ways during this pivotal time.

“It will take every one of us grabbing that and owning what levers we can pull in order to make a different reality going forward,” she said.