Competitors collaborate here: A look at joint initiatives between hospital systems in the city of Columbus

Something special is happening between hospitals in Franklin County, but not only with the hospitals. There is a collaborative nature at work that Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, calls "the Columbus Way."

"Leaders of all aspects-civic, business, government, community organizers-have an expectation of each other that we put our selfish interest aside, or at least below community interest," Fischer says. "I think the Columbus Way has been our way for a long time. I'm not sure we've always been introspective enough to actually have recognized it and talked about it."

The Columbus Way is nowhere more apparent than in how the four health systems of the Central Ohio Hospital Council work together on projects to improve the quality, value and accessibility of local healthcare. The council's latest report, "Commitment to Collaboration," details progress on joint efforts to reduce infant mortality, improve patient safety, address local health needs and share patient education materials in 17 languages, among other initiatives.

"The fact that we have competing hospitals working together to address local health issues is not only something our community should appreciate, but it's something we should support," says Jeff Klingler, the council's president and CEO.

"The spirit that pervades our group is always 'what's in the best interest of the community,'" says Dr. Steve Allen, CEO of Nationwide Children's Hospital and current council chair.

That's not the case elsewhere. "The relationship between hospitals in the same city or health systems in the same city is not necessarily all roses and probably includes a lot of thorns," says Claus Von Zychlin, president and CEO of Mount Carmel Health System. "There are markets in the country where the system CEOs won't even step into the same room with each other," he adds.

The Columbus Way emerges in the hospital council by what the health systems do, and even by what they don't do. Von Zychlin cites the example of an initiative to improve infection control through collaboration on hand-washing practices. "We chose not to use it as a competitive weapon against one another, but we said we owe it to the community to raise the bar, and it's something we can work on together. … It's just the right thing to do."

Dave Blom, president and CEO of OhioHealth, explains some issues the hospitals tackle together are complex and require engagement of other community forces. "You can't do it one hospital at a time. And if you can deal with those issues collectively, you can have a greater impact for the community at large."

Working on issues together helps keep relationships between hospitals positive, even as they compete. "If you all sit around the table once every quarter and look each other in the eye, that is just a good thing to do to keep those relationships positive." Blom says.

Across the country, healthcare is more competitive and less collegial than when he started in hospital administration, Von Zychlin says. But being able to collaborate to improve community health "is kind of fun," he says.

"I would challenge one to find another community where you would find as extensive a list of projects on which the hospitals collaborate. I think there is an expectation of the community that we work together," Allen says.

"I don't know of any other city where it happens to the same degree," agrees Dr. Steve Gabbe, CEO of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. It helps the four CEOs are all on the Columbus Partnership, Gabbe says. "The health system is just one example of how collaboration occurs in Columbus."

Mary Yost is the editor.