Several things make Northwest Arkansas unique among U.S. metros.
Near the top of the list is the notion of thinking beyond city and county lines. Regionalism took root long ago as the most effective way to get things done.
Ryan Cork has an interesting perspective about that. An Alabama native, his healthcare career has taken him across the country and world.
Earlier this year, he came to Arkansas to accept a job as executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s healthcare transformation division.
The council, an influential nonprofit that works to advance job opportunities, talent recruitment, physical infrastructure and quality of life in the region, formed the division in 2019 after researchers assessed the region’s healthcare economy. They found that Northwest Arkansas has high-quality, low-cost primary care. Still, there is a shortage of specialty care in nearly every field. The result is a loss of $950 million from the region’s economy each year as residents look elsewhere for high-level specialty care that includes therapy, testing, treatment and surgical procedures.
As head of the transformation division, Cork’s overarching goal is to facilitate collaboration among the region’s healthcare systems — typically competitors — to make Northwest Arkansas a healthcare destination. The building blocks of that are increased access to care, more availability of high-level specialty care — a Level I trauma center, transplant service lines or advanced cardiac care, for example — and integrating wellness of mind and body as an integral component of healthcare.
In a recent interview, Cork explained just how rare that objective is.
“Having this [healthcare transformation] division and these partners work in a manner that advances healthcare in Northwest Arkansas is, to me, unknown in any other space in the U.S.,” he said. “Look at any [other] metro with multiple hospitals. They are not collaborating for the advancements of those cities. They’re looking at how they can advance their systems.
“We have the leaders in Northwest Arkansas who understand that our way forward is the advancement of our cities, our counties and our state. They’ve put the individualism of what’s best for their institution behind the needs of what’s best for the patient. In other spaces, that is reversed.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there are conversations [about] market share,” he said. “Hospitals are businesses. Still, outside of that, the hospital leaders in these conversations are led by the thought of how we can advance collectively in healthcare delivery. That makes us the best and most unique place in the U.S.”
Before joining the Northwest Arkansas Council, Cork spent the previous nine years working for the Cleveland Clinic. He served in several leadership positions, including jobs in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Cork’s career began as a senior medical corpsman for the U.S. Navy before taking on the role of administrator at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and James Cancer Hospital. Cork spent 12 years at OSU before joining the Cleveland Clinic. He earned a graduate degree in healthcare administration while in Columbus, a springboard for his career.
“That opened up a lot of different avenues to do things in the industry,” he said.
Cork said the transformation division convenes monthly to discuss ways to advance the region’s healthcare. The pandemic has slowed much of their work.
“The goal lines have not moved, but the pace you would like to move has been downgraded,” he said. “Most of the work is related to COVID.”
One tangible “win” for the transformation division came in June when the Arkansas Legislative Council approved nearly $12.5 million in funding to expand physician residencies and fellowships in Arkansas.
Currently, Arkansas produces more medical students than it has residency positions available. To address that shortfall, a healthcare study commissioned by the council in 2019 recommended the establishment of 200 additional residencies.
According to the council, Washington Regional Medical Center and University of Arkansas Medical Sciences (UAMS) Northwest Regional Campus in Fayetteville developed a plan called “geographic wage classification” to establish up to 92 new graduate medical education positions at Washington Regional by 2030. The first 10 residency slots will be available in 2023.
“Being able to train today what will be the attending physicians of tomorrow is one of the first steps in reversing out-migration and keeping more patients at home,” Cork said.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Aside from the tangible wins, Cork said he gauges success by having stakeholders still “at the table” and engaged in discussions on advancing healthcare in Northwest Arkansas.
Eric Pianalto, president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas since 2013, is the transformation division’s chairman. He said Cork is a significant addition to the regional healthcare landscape. Particularly in a job that requires patience and consensus-building.
“When he tees up a topic, he has the patience to let the players speak their mind and let everybody around the table have the appropriate voice,” he said. “He is also very tactical and outcomes-driven. Most people who are very outcomes-driven don’t have the patience for conversation. He lets that happen. But he’s also very action-oriented so that when we do reach consensus on an objective, he puts things in motion to make that happen.”
Pianalto said the collective response to COVID this year also underscores how unique it is to have healthcare competitors working together for a common cause.
“It was not the intent of [the transformation division], but there’s no doubt that by having everybody at the table and having the right kinds of relationships already, we were able to quickly come together and rally around how we dealt with COVID as a community,” he said. “To me, that is a tangible win — from a messaging standpoint, coordination of vaccine clinics. It’s a tangible outcome and creates a healthier environment for healthcare that in overly competitive markets, frankly, doesn’t happen.”
Cork said he’d had jobs with deliverable tasks before, but the process of making Northwest Arkansas a healthcare destination is likely a job that stakeholders can’t ever complete.
“I don’t think it should ever end,” he said. “Technology [advancements] are not going to end. They will grow and amaze us all, and I want us to be part of that. I think we have the human capital and the brainpower to play a national, if not international, role in what the future of medicine looks like.
“This process is as deep and as long as we want to take it — even way past my career. To me, there is no better outcome than having Northwest Arkansas on the map in the same way you look at any of these other top-rated health centers in America. That makes this job, for me, the best job I’ve ever had.”
Part of Cork’s job has been getting to know Alice Walton, the billionaire philanthropist and Walmart heir who is putting her resources into significant projects in Northwest Arkansas focused on holistic health and well-being — whole health — including a new institute and medical school in Bentonville.
“Her ability to have a plan and execute on it is thoroughly impressive,” Cork said. “The way she thinks, it is humbling to be able to work with her and be in her presence.”
Cork spoke confidently that the whole health model could have a “forever impact” on Northwest Arkansas, with far-reaching effects.
“This is something that others will replicate across the U.S.,” he said. “People will look to Northwest Arkansas as a guiding light of what healthcare systems should look like.”