Dinner with an Expert: David Bernd ’71, the CEO of Sentara Healthcare

On the evening of March 26, 2013, Mr. David Bernd, CEO of Sentara Healthcare, shared with The College of William & Mary, Mason School of Business students his insights on “Where Business & Healthcare Intersect”.  The school’s Distinguished Speaker Series has featured many CEOs and top executives over the past few years, and the Mason School was proud to welcome back Mr. Bernd, a Class of 1971 W&M graduate.  Members of the Healthcare Club had the opportunity to share dinner with him and discuss healthcare technology, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Sentara’s evolution, and top-of-mind for students — where MBAs have career opportunities in healthcare.

Our dinnertime discussion quickly confirmed the research I had done about this leader.  I attempted to read anything I could find on him beforehand, but there’s not as much media on him as you might expect for someone leading a $5 billion non-profit hospital system. In fact, Mr. Bernd seems to largely avoid the spotlight.  Immediately after meeting him though you realize he is the type of leader you would like to have leading your company — an honest and genuine individual who seeks to build a world-class organization for Sentara’s patients and the people it employs.

Second-year MBA students in Professor Rajiv Kohli’s Healthcare Informatics class had recently discussed business cases on the difficulty in getting clinicians to participate in the implementation and adoption of an EMR system.  When asked how Sentara was able to implement one system-wide EMR solution, Mr. Bernd surprised us in saying that Sentara paid over a hundred clinicians to be champions in the process, with the promise that they could return to their positions once the project was complete.  Given all of the factors and difficulties in what Sentara sought to accomplish, he admitted the approach was costly, but was instrumental to Sentara’s successful EMR implementation.

Mr. Bernd opened the speaking event by asking a question: “What’s wrong with our healthcare system?”  Almost everything you can think of was proposed by the audience — pharmaceutical costs, medical malpractice insurance, the uninsured, obesity, fee-for-service, technology, and so on.  He would address these issues and how they pertain to Sentara over the next hour.

One of the most interesting points of the presentation came when Mr. Bernd spoke of Optima Health, a Sentara owned insurance provider. As an integrated health system, Sentara is in a unique position in that it can make clinical changes to save patients money, without hurting its’ stream of revenue. This is because Optima Health’s cost savings balance with the lost revenue.  Sentara recognized a population of Optima Health patients needing chronic disease management and advanced care planning. Millions of dollars would be spent to set up the clinical processes and make changes to their care, but it was worth it in order for patients to see a nearly 50% reduction in hospital admissions and over $5,000 per patient savings per year in total cost of care .  After an evening of hearing Mr. Bernd discuss Sentara’s approach to patient care, this story exemplifies Sentara’s quest for quality care.

During his talk, Mr. Bernd advocated measuring progress, establishing a pool of capital for strategic actions, and to consider passing on an “opportunity” if it does not make sense.  As he discussed throughout the evening, Mr. Bernd’s lessons were a big reason he has led Sentara successfully for almost 20 years.  Most importantly, Mr. Bernd recognizes his strong support team helps provide the foresight to best position Sentara in serving the community.

For first year MBAs that plan to take Professor Chon Abraham’s Healthcare CAM in the fall, the evening was a taste of the kind of insightful discussion they will have in class every day.  It was a pleasure to hear Mr. Bernd share his leadership experience and insights on healthcare. Mr. Bernd, thank you for enriching our Mason experience and especially our exposure to the growing career field of healthcare!

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Chris Shemes

Chris Shemes is an MBA candidate with the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary.

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