Don Kemper and Molly Mettler are retiring from Healthwise this coming year. Kemper is CEO of the nonprofit, and Mettler is senior vice president of mission.
Kemper has led Healthwise — which creates easy-to-understand health information for hospitals, front-line medical providers and consumers — to grow from a few people to a $40 million-a-year organization with about 275 employees. Healthwise has expanded from publishing a healthy-living handbook for families to producing content for hundreds of medical providers.
One example is the “Pregnant Me” program for women who are pregnant. It is being tested now with a national company’s employees, Kemper says. The program includes “patient decision aids,” a Healthwise product that could help an expectant mother understand the risks and benefits of a cesarean section versus a vaginal birth if she faces a decision about how to deliver her baby.
“Unless a patient is leaving each encounter smarter than she came in, then it is a wasted encounter,” Mettler says.
The organization also has been recognized nationally as a good place to work. Employees can bring their dogs to work, and their health benefits include a wellness program that offers financial rewards for healthy living.
Kemper, 69, and Mettler, 61, are married. They met decades ago, when they shared a common passion and eventually a common workplace. Mettler’s role has been to ensure the company hews to its core mission: empowering people to make better health decisions. Her post-retirement role, like Kemper’s, will be that of a world traveler.
So I started to work on the federal government. I said, “What the world needs is a Dr. Spock book for the whole family, that will help them take care of common health problems.” I tried to get the federal government to write the book and give it to every home in America. But it didn’t work. So, at the end of [the Public Health Service’s] two-year service, I took that idea with me, and a few years later, I ended up in Boise, Idaho, with the opportunity to pursue that.
[My boss in Boise] had just started to run a nonprofit, and his mission was to rock the boat in health care. “Let’s get something done that’s different.” That nonprofit was known as Health Systems Inc. We did a lot of training — the first nurse practitioner training in Idaho, the first EMT training in Idaho, we created a consumer-governed health maintenance organization. And I was able to start this health education program initially, called The Parent’s Role in Health Care. And we tried to see what we could do to help people do more for themselves, to ask for the care they need — to say no to care that doesn’t seem right to them.
We started Healthwise a few years later, 1975 — a separate not-for-profit organization with the same mission, to help people make better health decisions.
We’ve also involved a group that we call our medical editors — people who are in medical research and medical schools all over the country who are often the doctors that are helping to write guidelines for physicians. So we can get that information often a little in advance of the published guidelines.
We are trying to get the patient the absolute best, latest information, because they are going to bet their life on it. That’s our job.
We’re real good at the three sides of that:
• Finding the evidence, and understanding what we know and what we don’t know.
• Writing it in a really simple way — and it’s not just in words, it’s in video and animations and other things — but presenting it so everyday people can understand the evidence.
• And we’ve also gotten very good at delivering the information to people, whether it’s in their electronic medical records or their smartphones or through whatever means we have.
Much of our recent growth has been through these health systems. Health systems are now changing their business models, so they are much more interested in keeping people healthy than in just having more surgeries and more procedures. So we’ve had a lot of growth in the hospital system world, where they’re trying to have more empowered, more engaged patients.
Try to put the person first, not just the patient.
We have a program we’re developing here called More Good Days. It’s a different way to think about treatment late in life. So often the question is, “Well, do we give mom more care or less care at this stage in life?” And it’s hard to say, “Less care.” We’re trying to change the conversation to, “Let’s give mom all the care that will give her more good days, because these treatments will take away good days.”
The technology is there. The social readiness is still fragile. This is sort of a developing program. We want to pilot it, so check in with us next year, we’ll see how far it’s gone, but we’re getting a really good welcome for it, but always people are a little nervous (about bringing up the decision between aggressive treatment or end-of-life care). They want to try it on a small group first and see how it goes. We are patient, we’ve been here 40 years, we’re ready when they are.
But we [also] want to have an organization that really values the people we serve and the people who work here. Some things that won’t change, we’re hoping, are the mission and culture and the emphasis on being a really good place to work.