Healthcare Compliance Professionals Increasingly Have Varied Backgrounds

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

Healthcare compliance is a fluid field right now, reflecting the larger world of healthcare in general. One way it’s changing is that those who are entering compliance no longer near-universally hail from a healthcare background but are coming in from other professions. Is this creating shortages or issues?

Not necessarily, says Sheryl Vacca. Senior Vice President and Chief Risk Officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, a $24-billion organization with 130,000 caregivers in seven states. As someone who does have a deep healthcare background, Vacca, who began her healthcare career as a nurse and then over time moved into companies and took on oversight of audit, risk management, and information-security teams, says that diverse backgrounds bring many positives even as she admits to being a little uncomfortable with this shift.

“In our past, it traditionally needed to be somebody who understood healthcare,” Vacca says. “[A compliance officer] at least needed a few years of background in healthcare and at least a sense of where the regulatory aspects were and understood how the government pays. That was one of the primary sort of experience qualifications that you looked for. In some markets, because of the kind of agency they might be, some preferred law degrees; some preferred clinical. And finally, it really depended on the setting and sort of the kind of environment that this healthcare organization worked in.”

But, she continues, “As we’re going forward, what I’m seeing is if an organization is truly moving toward innovative thinking around their healthcare structure, they’re actually looking for people outside of the healthcare industry. It’s almost frightening to me in some ways because if you think about it, how could someone coming from the airlines industry be able to come into healthcare and truly understand how it functions?”

Future needs require new perspectives now

This type of outside-in hiring is more the exception than the norm now, Vacca adds, but as healthcare organizations attempt to innovate in every area, not just patient care and technology, compliance must also change, or risk being left behind.

“There’s quite a few organizations who want to move to that innovative, creative state,” Vacca says. “They’re looking at people who actually can come into the organization and move the compliance aspects in a new direction. There are some schools of thought where it is felt that a healthcare background is really helpful, but they’re also looking for those people from other environments who understand the basics of compliance and can apply those as well. Your role as a compliance officer is to actually look forward and identify how to evolve and what might be some of the regulatory aspects for consideration.”

To that end, she says mergers of healthcare and non-healthcare entitles, where players in the mix include Apple, Amazon, CVS Health, Aetna, and many others.

“When you talk to Apple or you talk to Amazon, and they are looking at a wholesaler of pharmaceuticals in 12 states and the acquisition of a drug company, they’re not going to look for the traditional healthcare-oriented, hospital-oriented health care compliance officer. They’re going to look for somebody with pharmaceutical background, but they’re also going to be very interested in someone who has wholesale and retail background because that’s what’s going to be very important. And then, of course, you will fill your team with subject matter experts to help support that leader.”

Vacca knows this to be true, because this kind of thinking came into play when she moved into her current position.

“I have 15 hospitals. We have a lot of bricks and mortar. But frankly, my company when they hired me a year ago was not looking for a specific healthcare-background individual. They actually were looking for somebody outside of healthcare who could think beyond the bricks and mortar,” she says. “Our CFO came from Microsoft. He has wonderful skill sets related to thinking from a Microsoft perspective of a publicly traded company, bringing in some key strategies that honestly the company may or may not have thought about before. Now he’s surrounded by people who do have a healthcare background and expertise. They’re sort of the guard rails for him as compliance would be and can say, ‘No, no. That’s a great idea, but these are the kinds of things we have to consider.’ But one of the things that he especially brings to us is the thoughts around different ways of doing things that if you were baked in healthcare for 30 years like I am, you may not always think like that. We are trying to bring in different viewpoints so that we can foster the actual wins that these other industries have had in our own industry and capitalize on those.”

About Sheryl Vacca:

Healthcare compliance expert Sheryl Vacca is Senior Vice President and Chief Risk Officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, a $24-billion company with 130,000 caregivers in seven states. Her responsibilities include oversight for compliance, audit, risk management, and information security. Previously, she served as the system-wide senior vice president for chief compliance and audit officer at the University of California. Vacca has received awards from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA).

This blog post is taken from a HealthStream Second Opinions Podcast that was recorded recently. To hear Vacca’s full discussion, click here.

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