New Sparrow CEO On Challenges, Health Care Debate

Oct 10, 2019

In June, James Dover became President and CEO of Sparrow Health System in Lansing. Previously, Dover led a health system in Springfield, Illinois.


Sparrow is Lansing’s third biggest employer, behind only the state of Michigan and Michigan State University.

Dover’s predecessor at Sparrow, Emory Tibbs, was ousted after a short tenure over news that he faced sex-for-money and sexual assault allegations in a lawsuit filed by a Virginia woman.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl speaks with James Dover about the challenges he saw when accepting the leadership job at Sparrow.

SCOTT POHL: You came to Sparrow Health System from a system in Springfield, Illinois. How are the operations the same, and how are they different?

JAMES DOVER: The operations are the same in that we have many of the very same components. We have a medical group, we have a large cardiology group, we have a system of hospitals, we also have a large, robust health plan. We cover a geographic area. So that's what's similar. What's different is that we're more developed here at Sparrow in terms of our health plan. We have almost 50,000 members in our health plan. We're starting now a Medicare Advantage plan, our affordable care (ACO) program is shared with other health systems, so it's much larger, much more productive. We have some multiple academic partnerships, and so in that way, we're a little bit different here.

POHL: Before accepting this job, what did you see as the biggest challenge facing Sparrow?

DOVER: Before accepting the job, what I saw that as the biggest challenge is how do you maintain being a community owned, community led system in an era of amalgamation, consolidation, and corporatization of healthcare.

POHL: How are you addressing that challenge?

DOVER: We're continuing to expand ourselves and our geographic reach, we're growing our system in the areas it needs to grow in. We're also forming those types of partnerships that makes us interdependent while maintaining our independent community owned status.

POHL: Was some of that or all of that already in motion before you arrived?

DOVER: A certain amount was already in motion. Our most recently announced University of Michigan partnership for our pediatric program, along with PHP, was already in motion. At the same time, how do we expand our partnerships with other groups as well, that's something new we’ll bring to the table.

POHL: Would you envision expanding that on your own now?

DOVER: We always expand as a team, we always do everything as a team, and so that starts all the way from governance to frontline caregivers. So yes, we would be doing that together.

POHL: I have to ask about your immediate predecessor here, Emery Tibbs. He was with Sparrow for only a short time. He was ousted after some legal trouble confronted him including allegations of a sexual nature. How big a blow would you say it was to Sparrow’s image, and have you felt compelled to address it?

DOVER: I don't think it was all that big of a blow. Sparrow is 123-year-old organization with tremendous, wonderful community goodwill and track record. So, I saw that as a speed bump, blip in time, we're looking forward and I have not had to address it at all.

POHL: Last week, Sparrow announced a joint venture with Michigan Medicine, the academic medical center of the University of Michigan. It's an expansion of pediatric services. What do you think that should mean to patients and their families?

DOVER: This is a great benefit to patients and families. We're very excited about this. University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital is very impacted in terms of its census, its ability to take more patients, and we have a very robust pediatric program here that we've had for many, many years. So, it really is a marriage made in heaven. So, what this brings for our local families is it brings the connectivity and seamlessness of care with the University of Michigan Medicine, at the same time keeping care local.

If for some reason you need a coronary type of care, pediatric level, that would only be done at an academic medical center of the nature of size and scope of University of Michigan, that patient can be transferred there, care delivered with the same seamless physicians and clinicians and care pathways as they would get here. And then, they can be immediately transferred back and it's all seamless. Ann Arbor might be 60 miles away, but you wouldn't know, it might as well be six feet away, if it works ideally as its intended to do.

POHL: There's also the recent expansion into what had been known as Hayes Green Beach Hospital in Charlotte, now known as Sparrow Eaton Hospital. It caps a three-year transition. Can you tell me more about that?

DOVER: Yes, this has been in the works for quite a while, as you mentioned, and what this does is this further strengthens our ability to provide care throughout our region. We take care of about 650,000 people across our entire five county region and to the south. We felt that Hayes Green Beach, now Sparrow Eaton Hospital, was a great community resource. And so, as they evaluated partnerships and who to affiliate with because it's a sole community hospital, you find fewer and fewer of those in the world today and their ability to maintain their status. The reason they selected Sparrow is we’re community owned, and that maintains two vantage points. One, it maintain the local community, what I would call ownership, just as part of Sparrow, but at the same time it brings Sparrow’s size, scale and essentiality of resources, access to care pathways, and expansion of services there in Charlotte and in Eaton Rapids.

POHL: Medical operations are under close scrutiny regarding inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature in the wake of the Larry Nasser case. Tell me how Sparrow is addressing that issue.

DOVER: Sparrow addresses that continuously. So, not just in the wake of Larry Nasser, very unfortunate, and I think Larry Nasser, Michigan State, the situation is a wakeup call for the entire nation in terms to make sure you have rigor and reliability and appropriate oversight and systems in place to ensure that something like that never happens. Consequently, we actually have mandatory training every year for all of our caregivers, in terms of a hostile workplace, sexual assault in the workplace. We have a separate mandatory training for all leaders, even further, it takes further deep dives into that. We have a hotline for all caregivers to report any concerns anonymously. So we have many, many layers.

In addition, our systems and protocols for how we treat our pediatric patients, our female patients, and also we now have centralized peer review to ensure that we don't have isolated action going on. So we have many, many layers of that. But I'll be honest, that's been going on for a long time, and the very unfortunate circumstances that occurred with the Larry Nasser situation, again, a wakeup call for the entire healthcare system.

POHL: Do you have any observations about Sparrow's position in the Lansing market in conjunction with McLaren Greater Lansing? Work is progressing on their new hospital that's scheduled to open in 2022. When they finish they're going to close their two existing campuses. Talk about your position in this market in conjunction with McLaren.

DOVER: Yeah, well, McLaren, in terms of their very old, outdated facilities, they needed to do something, so I can't speak to what their plans are, I can only speak to where our role is as we view our role in the community. Sparrow currently has about, we take care of two out of every three patients that are admitted from this community, and we plan to stay in that position, number one. Number two is we have a very broad depth. We have 115 sites of care, so we don't have just one hospital. We have a trauma center; last week is a great example of the need for the only level one trauma center in this region (following a plane crash at Lansing’s Capital Region International Airport). It's also the second busiest trauma center in the entire state of Michigan after the University of Michigan being number one.

We have five community hospitals on top of our own trauma center. We have a 400-plus physician medical group. We have a very large health plan. We also have a Sparrow Care Network that has close to 1,000 doctors in it. And so, we view ourselves as an integrated delivery network. This spans much beyond a single hospital, and I think that's where we view the future for the region is we're not a hospital that owns a health plan and we're not a health plan that owns a hospital. We're an integrated delivery network, that when someone joins Sparrow, they join us for life.

POHL: 2020 is an election year. Health care is a major issue in the presidential election next year. Do you have any particular thoughts on the debate over health care in America?

DOVER: Well, it's one of the top three, and if you look at all the polls that are coming out, it still is the number one issue, that is one of the top three issues that are on people's mind. Regardless of the current distraction that's going on in Washington, D.C., and all the issues that are currently going on between the political parties and executive branch and legislature etcetera. Set that aside for a minute, that will be a moment in time. We're apolitical at Sparrow, obviously. We welcome everybody from all sides of the political spectrum, because we don't view it as people wear jerseys when they come into the hospital or into our health system, we take care of everybody, and we share their concerns.

Health care is expensive. We also share concerns about access points to care, the nation's woeful unfunding of behavioral medicine. If you look at our community health needs and analysis, behavioral medicine is the number one need within not just here in our greater regional area, but across the entire nation.

The other is we have an aging population, and what's happening is every day we have tens of thousand people who are all joining the Medicare program, and so the sustainability of the Medicare program is of huge importance to the country. How do you sustain it? How do you fund it on a go forward basis? People are living longer, and also the technology is of the sort and nature that the baby boomer population is accessing healthcare sooner in their Medicare experience than the last six months of life. It used to be the last six months of life, Now, you know, the hip, the knees, you know, the joints, the watchman (heart) procedure. You know, we do TAVR (heart) procedures. These are all things that are done earlier. It both extends life, but it's also more expensive earlier in the Medicare program. So how do you make that sustainable?

I think from an election year standpoint, if you listen carefully to the debates in the next election cycle, yes, the presidential debates will be important, but the reality is the Medicare program will be driven and its sustainability, by what happens in Congress, both the House and the Senate, and that is where the action will be. So, pay attention to those races as well.