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Anton Gunn: A Hospital Executive’s Perspective on Healthcare

On this episode of the Perspectives on Healthcare Podcast we get a hospital executive’s perspective on healthcare from Anton Gunn. He is a former hospital executive, a social worker by training and made leadership expert. Anton was part of President Obama’s team for the Affordable Care Act. A member of Generation X, he lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

Anton gave us a lot of food for thought as he shared the hospital executive’s perspective. However, here are 3 things that stood out to me from Anton Gunn’s perspective on healthcare:

  • Healthcare is not accessible, affordable or available to every person in America
  • Quality healthcare is the highest level of care you can receive
  • The 3 most important questions:
    • “Do you care about me?”
    • “Will you help me?”
    • “Can I trust you?”

You can learn more about Anton Gunn through his website or you can connect with him on social media using the links below:


Here is the transcript of Anton Gunn: A Hospital Executive’s Perspective on Healthcare:

Rob Oliver: Hey, and welcome. My guest. Today is someone I met through the National Speakers Association. His name is Anton Gunn. And let me just say his bio I had to go through, and it would take me about a half hour to read all of his accomplishments, so I’m just going to highlight a couple of them, okay. He is a former hospital executive, and he was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act. He has recently been named one of the ten most influential minority executives in health care by Fierce Healthcare. Currently, he is the CEO of 937 Strategy Group, which works on leadership, workplace culture and diversity, equity and inclusion. He is from Columbia, South Carolina, a member of Generation X. Anton Gunn. Welcome to the show.

Anton Gunn: Thank you so very much for having me excited about being here with you.

Rob Oliver: So first question, tell me a little bit about yourself and your role in health care.

Anton Gunn: Well, so it’s definitely great to be with you. And you gave all of the formal stuff in the bio, so I won’t bother to recount that. But I will tell you first and foremost is that I’m a son of a Navy veteran and the grandson of an army veteran and a great grandson of an army veteran. So I grew up in a military family where health care was never a concern in my life. And so it wasn’t until I finished playing College football, where I had great health care while I was in College football that I understood that healthcare was not accessible, affordable, or quality for every person in America. It wasn’t until I was done that I saw that. And I started my career as a community organizer, talking to low income people in communities about their experience with health care. And that actually shaped the framework of how I got into health care. I’m a social worker by training. So that’s a profession that you don’t hear a lot of people in healthcare talk about. They talk about nursing and physician practice of all sorts. But I am a social worker by training, and I believe that allows me to look at both the macro, systemic issues that create injustice in health care and the micro issues. And those are the things that kind of bring me into the space of health care.

Rob Oliver: Okay. Excellent. And you cover a really broad span there, which gives you a truly unique perspective. What does quality health care mean to you?

Anton Gunn: That’s a great question. And probably one of the most loaded questions that you could ever ask anybody, because quality. We all know it when we see it and when we experience it and low quality is something that we know and experience ourselves. And so we know we’re not getting good quality. But how I define quality is the highest level of care possible to receive. That’s how I would define quality. And so what’s highest for me may be very different from what’s highest for you. However, the question is that we know what it looks like. Why don’t most of us get it? That’s the main question is why most of us get it because we know what the highest would feel like and what the highest would look like and what that experience would be like. And so most of us don’t get it. And that’s the proverbial question that we work for every day in health care. It’s really interesting to me that you say that because you are right. A lot of times when you hear somebody talk about health care, they can tell you what poor quality health care is, but they can’t really delineate what high quality health care is. And I don’t want to make it like the old obscenity laws where I can’t really define it. But I know what it is when I see it, if that makes any sense. And the other piece that I was going to say, I want to highlight something you said earlier you were talking about health care quality, but you’re also talking about accessibility and affordability.

Rob Oliver: Maybe this is my commentary, and I’d love to get your take on it. Why is it that when someone is prescribed a certain treatment? The first question that’s asked is, what kind of insurance do you have? And in that way, the quality of health care is not based on what your needs are. The quality is based on who’s the payer for your health care. What are your thoughts on that?

Anton Gunn: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. The quality is tied to what you can afford or what your payer, your health insurer or your employer is willing to pay. I wish it was different. Let me just kind of be clear about that. This is an American problem. The way we fund health care in the United States of America, it didn’t start off as a problem. It started off as a benefit. And how we created the American healthcare system was really tied to employment, that it became a benefit to employees if you came to work at my company. And so we built this system right after World War Two, or actually during World War Two that created this framework where the quality of what you get is determined by someone else based upon what it costs and what you can afford. And I don’t think it’s right. And I think every day we should be working to make the system more right. But it’s very complicated. We tie health insurance coverage to a job. We tie so many things to what you can afford to pay. And then there’s so much money tied into research and the development of new technology that we’ve created something that is an economic engine for the country. So we have to be very careful at how we change it, because nearly 20% of our gross domestic product is attached to health care. So it’s like 18% of GDP. So one little major tweak and how we finance it or how we change it could be a massive disruption if we’re not thoughtful on how we make it right.

Rob Oliver: Amazing statistic. Thank you for sharing that. Now that we’ve established that it’s difficult to give that example. But can you give me an example of quality health care?

Anton Gunn: Yeah. My example of quality health care would really tie directly into accessibility and affordability, which is if you have a health insurance plan through your employer, and that employer says it’s more important to us that you are able to go to the doctor when you feel ill. So we can prevent you from having complicated illness before we’re going to make sure that your copay is zero. And not only are we going to make sure your copay is zero, but we’re going to flip the coinsurance piece of this, and that is we’re going to pay the majority of it up front and worry about the 20% of your portion later. We’re going to cover that 80% up front. So for any consumer, you’ve eliminated the cost burden from them being able to seek care. Then the second context is to say, you know what we need to make sure that there are health care providers that are near where you work, play and worship. A big part of this is that you can have two people who work at the same employer who do the same job, but one of them lives in a Zip code. For every 1000 persons who live there, there’s only one doctor, but another person who lives in a neighboring zip code. For every 1000 people, there are 100 doctors. And so you would think that why can’t the person with only one doctor go right across into the next zip code? But there’s some real imperceive barriers that might keep people. They may not have transportation. They may not feel welcome in that community. Or historically, there may have been other issues that have kept them from being able to go into that community. And this particularly plays itself out along race, gender, language, access, all kinds of things. And so for me, quality will look like when we remove all of those barriers from a person seeking care, getting care and being able to afford care.

Rob Oliver: Okay. And so what I’m hearing you say is that sometimes the quality of healthcare that we receive again, another wrinkle to it. It’s not just about what you can afford. It also has to do with where you live and the access. A very interesting point that you’re making there. What do you wish people knew about your role? In health care. And you can take that from any angle, whether it’s social worker, hospital, executive or leadership development or all three.

Anton Gunn: Yeah. So I definitely think that I will take all three because I think it’s really important. What I want people to know is that this is not a hobby for me, this is not a job for me. This is the passion of my life that I really do believe that we need to spend our time making sure that everyone, regardless of what you look like, your background, your experiences, your preexisting conditions, the shape of your family, any demographic define of you that you have the opportunity to live out your Godgiven potential. We all have potential. And many times most of us don’t live out our potential because it’s tied to our health. It’s tied to how healthy we are to do those things that we have the ability to do. And so for me, my whole focus is how do we create an environment that defines that? So early in my career, it was fighting for access to make sure people could get insurance coverage under the Medicaid program. I kind of raised that up to when I worked for President Obama. My job was to do outreach and education about the Affordable Care Act so people could understand that this was coming. A change was coming, and it didn’t matter. If you had a pre existing condition, you could still get coverage and get access to coverage. Later on, I went inside of an academic health system. I worked in a senior role for six years as an academic health system, training physicians on cultural competency, how to deliver care to diverse people and knowing that if a person speaks a language different than you or they are racially, culturally, ethnically, through gender identity or sexual orientation different than you are, you need to pay more attention to what they’re saying and be more open to understanding their experience as you deliver care. And now I spend my time helping the health care workforce. Now, what do I mean, helping the health care workforce? We have over a million people who work in health care, and I would love to say that every hospital is like you see on Grey’s Anatomy or on Er or Marcus Welby or Trapper John, MD. But it’s not like that. Health care is a high stress environment for everyone that works there. Every decision can be life or death. And many times when you have those high stakes tempers get short. People don’t have a lot of tolerance in patients at all, and mistakes are something that are not tolerated. So for the workers in health care, it can be very toxic and hostile, and people get mistreated every day. If you look at the physician suicide rate, the number of physicians who want to take their own life is twice as high that of the general population. 55% of doctors have thought about leaving the profession in the next ten years. And don’t get me started on how nurses are in an epidemic in terms of their missing from the workforce, we can’t keep nurses or retain nurses. And it’s because of the toxicity in the workforce. And so now my goal is to help leaders and organizations that run hospitals and health care organizations build a kind of culture where every healthcare worker will thrive and whether they feel valued and respected every day. But most importantly, when you need them the most as a patient, that they are ready to serve you because they’re not stressed, because they’re not in a toxic environment, and they can do the best job possible delivering quality health care so you can go back home to your family and your community and live out your Godgiven potential. That’s what I want people to know. I’m most passionate about this from top to bottom, from inside to out. This is my life’s work.

Rob Oliver: Yeah. That is such a powerful statement that you’ve made, and I think that it is important from two sides. Okay. What you talked about is the stress that the healthcare workers are under, and that has been greatly exacerbated by Kovid and everything that’s going on. But at the other point in that is what is it that health care workers are trying to do for patients? It’s allow them to get back to their home and to get back to their life. And in that way, both sides need to be taken care of, or the whole system has basically failed. Yes. What excites you about the future of health care?

Anton Gunn: I think what excites me. And this is kind of like the silver lining for me inside of the global pandemic around Coronavirus, the novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, is that more than ever before, the American public is seeing the value of our health care workforce. Everyone from the people who are in patient transport to the physicians, to the nurses, the people who work in Ers, to the people who have to buy items in the supply chain to make sure there are enough masks and enough gowns and enough gloves and enough shoe tips. All of these things. People are really seeing the value of our health care workforce. And so I think that’s going to create an opportunity for us to have a new conversation of how do we build a better system? How do we prepare for the next pandemic? How do we make sure that what is happening right now never happens again. This is going to come with a lot of challenges, but it’s also going to come with something else that I’m really big on are some innovations. Like I mentioned a lot of entrepreneurs, people who are now entering into the health care space, who started companies that are really focused on meeting the supply chain needs around personal protective equipment, people who are trying to find ways to get vaccines to market faster people who are providing covid testing, not just for Colbert but for Flu A and Flu B and can do 48,000 tests in 1 hour to make sure that we reach so many people. These are the kinds of companies and the innovations that I’m starting to see. And that’s what excites me about the future is that our healthcare system has always been one of resiliency, and we’re seeing that more than ever before. And we’ve also been one of innovation. And I really do feel like the innovations that we’re starting to see are going to shape our future in ways that we have never imagined.

Rob Oliver: Excellent. What is one thing medical professionals can start doing today to improve the quality of health care?

Anton Gunn: The one thing every medical professional can do today to start improving care for everyone and improving the quality of health care is to answer yes to three questions. They can do this if they answer yes to these three questions. So let me tell you what the three questions are, but I’m going to tell you who you need to answer them for. You need to answer them for every patient, for every member of your health care team, every family member, every visitor, and every person that you come in contact with. Here are the three questions. Question number one, do you care about me? Question number two is, Will you help me? And question number three is, Can I trust you now, when I say answer yes to those three questions, I don’t want you to answer yes to those three questions with your words. I want you to answer yes to those three questions with your actions. How are you showing the care team that you care about them, that you’re willing to help them and that they can trust you? How are you showing that parent, that visitor, that child who is with a sick parent, that you care about them, that you’re willing to help them to get back to their lives and live out their Godgiven potential. But more importantly, that they can trust everything that you say and do is going to be focused on those first two questions. That’s what every healthcare every medical professional should be doing is through their actions, answering yes to those three fundamental questions.

Rob Oliver: That is a very powerful way to end this conversation. Anton Gunn, thank you very much for being with me today. I appreciate your perspective on healthcare.

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