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Hank Winter 2015

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With Collective Wisdom, You Can Achieve Anything

Varoujan Altebarmakian, MD, physician-in-chief, Fresno Medical Center, Northern California

The only doctor on the 2012 Common Issues Committee had an unusual vantage point

When I was asked to represent The Permanente Medical Group at 2012 bargaining, I leapt at the opportunity. My own experience with partnership at Fresno Medical Center showed me what great things could be accomplished with collective problem solving.

I sat on the subgroup that looked at how to improve partnership to enhance performance and Kaiser Permanente’s operational agility. I was amazed at seeing so many people with different backgrounds sharing their thoughts and shaping the outcomes. From the highest levels of Kaiser Permanente and union leadership to the front line, everybody was around the table, and they were all equal in this venue. Everyone was heard and engaged.

I personally learned a lot from the different perspectives voiced by all of the individuals representing their fields. I strongly believe that collective wisdom is better than individual wisdom, and that with collective wisdom you can achieve anything in life. Interest-based bargaining, which assembles voices from all levels and reaches of Kaiser Permanente, is a great example of collective wisdom.

Another thing that struck me—how much folks craved the physician perspective. When I spoke, all 25 to 30 people in that subgroup really listened. And there were issues where a physician perspective was critical. That was a strong message I brought back to physicians. In most unit-based teams at Fresno, there is physician involvement. The intention is to bring those perspectives together to enhance the care for our members and patients. But does that mean if I walk into a UBT meeting I’ll see a doctor? Maybe yes, maybe no.

I’ve worked at Kaiser Permanente for 34 years, and I saw the pre-partnership years. They were contentious ones. We’ve had relative peace with coalition unions since partnership. That’s not to say that working in partnership is perfect in every way. It can’t be done without trusting each other. And how do you develop trust? Through transparency. The whole bargaining process was about transparency; essentially, everybody could share everything. That doesn’t mean people didn’t disagree.

The interest-based, collective approach takes into account everyone’s perspectives to reach a better outcome, which is ultimately a common goal—superior care for our members and patients.

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