OhioHealth's Dave Blom reflects on a long career building the region's largest health system
As Dave Blom retires after nearly two decades leading Central Ohio’s largest health system, his thoughtful work is evident all over the region.
OhioHealth’s retiring CEO is humble and practical, a stark contrast to the grand work he’s done transforming the health system since 2002, and very quietly, the city’s economic growth. The work home he recently moved into won’t be his for much longer, as he will officially retire June 30 after nearly two decades as CEO and four decades with the company. But OhioHealth’s new offices at West North Broadway and Route 315 are proudly named for him. When asked to share his feelings about the honor, he offers a characteristically modest answer: “I knew you were going to ask that. I’m humbled and also grateful. That’s about all I can say.”
Blom’s 17 years as CEO of OhioHealth have been characterized by unprecedented change in the health care industry and at OhioHealth—and for Columbus, for that matter. During his tenure, OhioHealth nearly doubled its facilities, doubled staff, tripled operating revenue and saw its charity care budget more than quintuple. Blom was also engaged every week for the better part of two years as part of the small team that helped create Columbus 2020.
Blom stepped into OhioHealth in 1983. He pursued administration at the behest of Ed Mansfield, the president of Riverside Methodist Hospital at the time. While Blom was a college student at Ohio State University, he worked two jobs—at a furniture store and at then-Ohio State University Hospital (Upham Hall). The woman in charge of Upham Hall was Ed’s wife, Connie. She sent Blom to Ed to talk career. When Blom was done earning a graduate degree at George Washington University, he came back to Columbus and Ed hired him. Today, Ed’s oval, wooden desk from all those years ago, the one where Blom was seated in 1975 during his meeting with Ed, sits in Blom’s office. He stumbled upon it in an office at Kobacker House, recognizing it by the name emblazoned on its edge. When successor Dr. Stephen Markovich takes the reins July 1, he will add a second name—Blom’s.
Blom’s first gig as a hospital administrator was to oversee Joel Pomerene Memorial Hospital in Millersburg. He was 28. “What were they thinking?” he says. Half its patients were Amish and they felt they were being treated unequally. This led to the firing of Pomerene’s previous overseer, the acquisition of Pomerene by Riverside, and young Blom being charged to fix things. It was an unforeseen opportunity for him to learn crucial lessons. He met with people from Millersburg’s Amish community every other week. “What I learned was the importance of understanding your community and serving it well. If you don’t do that, the enterprise will not thrive. If you do, it will.”
He learned things like the fact that Pomerene’s horse hitching post was the wrong height, preventing the horses from standing up straight while tied to it; and the fact that Amish women didn’t need as much time for recovery post-delivery and would wait until midnight to walk through the hospital doors while in labor to ensure they wouldn’t pay a two-day charge. A few babies were born in buggies in the hospital parking lot because of this. A new hitching post was installed, the length-of-stay for Amish mothers was shortened to 12 hours—a much cheaper option for the hospital—and the nightly fee was adjusted to a rolling 24 hours. “It seemed to me the problems were mostly about an inability to connect with the community,” Blom says.
Closer to home, Blom was back in Columbus when OhioHealth added Grant Medical Center in 1988 during a time of “deep, deep financial trouble” for the downtown hospital. Blom was its chief operating officer until 1998. Lots of staff members were cut. “There were several paydays where we didn’t have cash two days before payday to make payroll. I had to go to Chicago to get an emergency Medicare check. You learn a lot when you’re in that situation.”
Still, Blom considers his time at Grant a wonderful experience. He’s proud of what it is today—a thriving downtown hospital and well-regarded Level 1 trauma center. “I’d challenge you to find many others around the country that are as well-situated as Grant,” he says. Blom, self-admittedly, has been a fixer for a lot of his career. “I guess they had the confidence that I’d be able to pull together a group of people to fix it.”
Zooming out on OhioHealth, which spans nearly all four corners of the state, having a cohesive culture is a bit of a feat. Regionally, OhioHealth is everywhere from Mansfield to Portsmouth, Kenton to Cambridge. In total, it operates, manages or is affiliated with 15 medical centers and over 60 outpatient facilities throughout the state—with regional activity comprising 40 percent of the company.
During his tenure as CEO, Blom added seven hospitals to the OhioHealth system either by building or acquiring them. He says he was focused on expanding because, “It was this notion of ‘bringing health care close to where people live’ will win the day.”
Rural facilities often can’t offer the same level of care as their urban counterparts and will refer patients to them. “If you’re really sick or really injured what do you need? You need a whole army of specialists. You need a lot of technology,” Blom says. When OhioHealth enters a smaller community those less capable facilities are thus supported. It is a formula that works, he says.
“I think we’ve done a nice job of trying to reinvigorate the health care in those communities to make sure it’s high-quality and available for everybody that needs it,” says Markovich, a doctor by training.
“We got good at it,” Blom says. “[Expansion] enables us to take the best of OhioHealth to the region.” Blom says doing this also lowers medical expenses for those patients. Right now, one of OhioHealth’s goals is to move out-of-city patients in Columbus back to their communities where they can still receive care. A nimble IT system connects facilities and assists in the process. But OhioHealth won’t say yes to every hospital that invites it in—it agrees to acquire about half the time. “We have to feel comfortable that we can have those organizations thrive. It’s not just financial; it’s quality, service and etcetera,” Blom says.
With an agreement between OhioHealth, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Mount Carmel Health System, charity care for the region’s poor is shared among the health systems. Because of its geographic reach, however, OhioHealth shoulders a disproportionate amount of charity work, Blom says. That’s fine with him. “When I measure patient satisfaction in our emergency rooms, I don’t scale it by whether you have any money or not,” he says. In addition, late last year OhioHealth struck a deal with national senior primary care provider ChenMed to open clinics in Linden, the Hilltop and Whitehall in leased shopping center spaces. Charity care is why Donna James, an OhioHealth board member, says she’s been on the board for the past six or so years. James, a cancer survivor, says she appreciates that OhioHealth is dedicated to making sure it can pay for those who can’t.
All the expansion made bringing individual health care facilities and occupations under one OhioHealth identity even more difficult than it already was, providing Blom with one of the greatest challenges of his career. But he’s worked diligently and fiercely at times to ensure that OhioHealth remains unified in purpose and oneness. “What he’s contributed to the community is a cohesive system of care across Central Ohio,” says James. “Instead of having siloed hospitals and siloed specialties, he really pulled together a system that can pull on the expertise across the entire system.”
The shift OhioHealth made toward unification in 2002 was not an easy one for any party. Boards of directors from each of the medical centers were made into one board and the unity bled out. Blom says this mandate was difficult for medical teams that previously had been concerned primarily with the individual success of their medical center.
Other hurdles Blom faced that threatened this philosophy included when a handful of orthopedic physicians within OhioHealth wanted to get together and build their own specialty hospital, and OhioHealth took them to court and won, coining the term “The OhioHealth decision.” The position the health system took was controversial, but Blom didn’t want to see health care become fragmented in Columbus. “I feel good about that,” says Blom. Today, OhioHealth has an open medical staff, employing more than 1,000 doctors with aligned priorities and incentives, and another 1,900 in private practice have privileges to treat patients and perform surgeries at OhioHealth’s facilities. “We shouldn’t look to maximize the success of any one hospital, but how do we use these assets to collectively serve the community better? We coined the term ‘systemness,’ ” he says. OhioHealth’s “systemness” is the glue that holds together its many parts and gives them a uniform identity. “I don’t know if we invented the word or not, but we hear about it.”
Blom has been leading a health care system longer than anyone in the region. “Dave is the longest-serving executive of any of our health care systems and he’s championed high-quality care in the community, as well as having a very collaborative approach to addressing health care needs in the community,” says Steve Allen, CEO of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, who is retiring just before Blom. “He is one of the best health care executives I have ever interacted with in this country.”
Blom is leaving OhioHealth as a cohesive system that reaches the needy. However, he thinks ultimately health care should be reformed. “You have to reform every part of it,” he says. You can’t just reform one piece because it’s a system.” Starting with a patient that cares about their health, moving to a physician who is incentivized to provide good care to patients and ending with an industry that focuses on keeping people healthy rather than on profiting from illness and injury. Who is in the best spot to push for this? The business community, he says.
“I’m finding a lot of interest in these big companies to align the incentives of their employees, the consumer, the physician, the hospital and the insurance vehicle,” Blom says. “We have early projects with several of the businesses in town to do just that.” OhioHealth practices what Blom preaches with OhioHealthy, its own health initiative for its employees. “It’s a part of my sensitivity that’s been all the economic development [work I’ve done],” he says.
Columbus’ economic development is the thing Blom says he chose to focus on as a city leader, taking the advice of a mentor who said he should try to go deep and not wide. This goal is reflected in his board involvement—he’s been involved in things much of the city may not have known about. “Dave was there as a key linchpin [in founding Columbus 2020 and sharpening the Partnership’s focus on economic development],” says Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “He was also at the time serving on the Chamber of Commerce. And that was an important point as we thought about how to put together economic development plans. I think the success of that’s pretty self-evident.”
Blom has left an indelible impression not only on the city and the organizations serving it, but on its individuals as well. Fischer remembers a time when he was considering taking another opportunity in the private sector instead of remaining at the Partnership. Fischer and Blom one afternoon fell into a conversation about the choice that went on for several hours—“who knows what we blew off,” Fischer says. Blom never point-blank told him what to do, but instead simply listened and shared his own perspective, he says.
“Dave went from being a great professional partner to simply being a friend and an eye and an ear and a counselor,” says Fischer. “Now I reflect back on 11 years of doing this [Columbus Partnership job], and you know, probably but for that encounter with Dave as I was making some decisions, I bet I wouldn’t be here.”
A few questions with Dave Blom
How have you prepared to retire?
A lot of people started their jobs around the same time I did. There is a whole class of us [hospital administrators] that I’ve stayed close with for the past 18 years. We’re in the same peer group, I see them in meetings. They’re all starting to retire, so over the past few years I’ve paid a lot of attention, in fact, I’ve written it down. How well did it go [at all the different hospitals]? I’ve been a student of that for some time—how it went for the organization, how it went for the board and how it went for them personally, because there have been some breathtakingly awful transitions and some have been wonderful. About a year and a half ago, when I decided it was time, I knew what I wanted to see happen and what I didn’t want to see happen.
What has been your overall goal as CEO of OhioHealth?
I want to have an OhioHealth enterprise physician within seven or eight minutes of everyone in Central Ohio. We have pretty much accomplished that. We’ve got hospitals pretty well spread out and we have big ambulatory sites that fill in the gaps, and then smaller physicians’ offices with some imaging and freestanding ERs where those aren’t. So if you look at a map, we’ve got a nice geographic distribution that provides health care close to where people live, so I think we’ve done a good job.
How do you know you picked the right successor in Steve Markovich?
I’ve got all the confidence in the world Steve will do a great job. He’ll take the organization to another level. I feel like we’re handing it off at the right time. I’m ready. Organization’s ready. He’s ready. Board’s ready. And his values are rock solid, character impeccable, smart, experienced leader. He agrees with the strategy, He understands the value of the culture. He’s helped build the leadership team so there’s not going to have to be a lot of major changes soon, but he’s got to do it his own way. He’ll do it his own way and, you know, it’ll probably be better than mine for him because he can’t do it the way I do it.
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.