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Jennifer Steiner, CEO of InnerChange, Gets Candid about Mental Health


Two years ago, when Jennifer Steiner came on as CEO of InnerChange – a family of residential and outpatient mental health treatment programs for adolescents, young adults and their families – she recognized opportunities for growth both inside and outside of the organization. Steiner observed a few distinct characteristics about the existing Company culture. Most importantly, there was a passionate commitment to service for clients and families that pervaded the entire organization.  In contrast, there was also a culture of facility-level autonomy where individual program success was the focus.

While autonomy isn’t necessarily a negative characteristic, Steiner identified a need for InnerChange and its treatment centers to come together in a more meaningful way – to rally around a common purpose and vision. Interestingly, she determined that InnerChange had an opportunity to apply some of the same principles used in its clinical treatment of family systems on the organization itself. Steiner led InnerChange through a culture shift that has transformed the organization and positioned it to lead the mental health treatment in the U.S. and internationally.

Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions for us.  As we always do in our first question we like to ask about your background.  Where did you grow up?  Education?  Family life?

I moved a lot as a child, so it’s a long list of places where I “grew up.”  My elementary school years were spent primarily in Rhode Island.  From there, we moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Then to Georgia and finally New Hampshire, where I finished high school.  We were not a military family, just a family that embraced lots of change and opportunity.

I attended Colorado College for my undergraduate degree.  I majored in Anthropology and my parents always joked that it was going to be a challenge for me to find a job!  I met my husband, Jon, at Colorado College.  We were married shortly after graduation and moved to a town near Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we had our three children and settled down for about 12 years.  About six years ago, we moved to Santa Barbara, California, where we live today.  We have a great community and absolutely love the lifestyle.

I decided to go back to school for my MBA in 2008.  It was a fun and challenging time…working full time, raising my two boys, adopting my daughter and working toward my degree.  I earned my MBA from the University of Michigan – Stephen M. Ross School of Business in 2010.

When I’m not working, I enjoy spending free time with my husband and our three children, Ethan (17), Elijah (11), and Eve (8).  We are active in our church and we love spending time outside, biking, hiking and sailing.  I also run marathons and practice yoga.  I am also a passionate supporter of the Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization that grants dying wishes of terminally ill adults.

What got you interested in Mental Health?  What did you do prior to becoming CEO of InnerChange?

Prior to becoming CEO at InnerChange, I served in executive roles for leading healthcare providers across the country.  Immediately prior to InnerChange, I was a Division Vice President at Davita Health Care Partners, a leading Fortune 500â provider of kidney care that delivers dialysis services to patients with chronic kidney failure and end stage renal disease.  In that role, I was responsible for actively managing and growing a ~$250M P&L, including a focus on census and treatment growth and new clinic development and acquisition.

Prior to Davita, I was a Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Health Care REIT (now WellTower), one of the largest real estate investment trusts specializing in health care in the U.S.  In that role, I was responsible for developing and implementing marketing, communications and brand strategy for current and prospective customers, employees, and the institutional investment community.

Prior to Health Care REIT, I served as an Assistant Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at HCR Manor Care, a leading provider of skilled nursing, assisted living, home care and hospice services.

Now, I am making it my life’s work to foster a difference in the lives of the families InnerChange serves.  I was fortunate to be introduced to InnerChange by a colleague and I was immediately taken by the incredible work that InnerChange does to heal struggling families.  I was inspired by the innovative clinical model, the heart-driven culture and opportunities to grow the company.  I was excited about serving a different kind of population than I had previously in my career.  It felt neat to be able to serve people in an earlier stage of life (as most of my work had been with the elderly population.)  My passion to improve the standard of healing – accountability, access to care and innovation – in mental health is what gets me out of bed in the morning!

What lead you to move on to taking over the helm at InnerChange?

I chose to take the role at InnerChange because I immediately recognized that with the right leadership, strategy and capital, InnerChange would be capable of making a significant impact on the way mental health is delivered in our country.  I am also inspired that family by family, we are improving the lives and futures of adolescents, teens and young adults.  Our vision is to heal generations.  We recognize that the impact we have today will be felt in further generations down the road and that’s a pretty important responsibility that we’ve undertaken.

What do you think the biggest changes in Mental Health have been over the past decade and what do you think the biggest changes will be over the next decade?

Biggest challenges in the past decade:

While the need for mental health services is growing at an unprecedented pace, the stigmas associated with MH/SUD issues continue to inhibit prevention and assessment outreach, as well as access to convenient, discrete and affordable resources. These limitations have perpetuated an ineffective treatment cycle that defers to frequent, and in many cases unnecessary, hospitalizations and short-term stabilizations because these are among the few reimbursed modes of care for mental health. They also are extremely expensive and have yet to be proven effective at achieving long-term outcomes.

The majority of patients that come out of these environments often have a high level of acuity that cannot be handled adequately by outpatient therapy and post-assessment care alone. Thus, these patients find themselves needing more resources and treatments shortly after discharge and, all too often, end up being readmitted into one or both of these settings.

This continuous cycle not only generates poor patient outcomes and quality of life, but also accumulates a high aggregate cost to all parties involved.

Biggest challenges going forward:

With the increased focus on value-based care across the healthcare industry, there is a growing need for services that deliver positive outcomes at lower costs. Nowhere is this more critical than in the mental health arena.

A recent study by Health Affairs, which used data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, cited mental disorders as the most costly medical condition in the United States in terms of health spending. For mental health issues specifically, the total annual expenditure is estimated to exceed $525 billion, nearly one third of the estimated $1.7 trillion spent on healthcare annually (Source: Milliman).

To effectively serve this population and achieve long-term outcomes, the mental health industry can no longer operate as an isolated offshoot of the healthcare tree, but instead, must pursue greater acceptance and integration. To achieve this, we must shift our focus to accountability and collaboration in order to remove any and all barriers that stand between individuals and access to appropriate care.

What is "Data Driven Treatment and Outcomes?"

In order to provide the highest level of mental health care in the country, we invest resources to constantly evaluate and improve our teams, our programs, and our therapeutic services.  Our programs embrace a practice of data-driven treatment, a proprietary method where we measure the health of students, clients and families in real-time, throughout treatment, to ensure we are providing the best care. This means that treatment decisions are based on hard data, not hunches. Moreover, we rigorously evaluate our programs using a 100-point quality and safety scale so that we can, without a doubt, demonstrate that we have the highest standard of quality.

To cut through the barriers standing in the way of delivering optimum care, the mental health industry must recognize and embrace the importance of data. This goes beyond merely benchmarking at the onset and conclusion of care. It requires the nimble and ongoing collection of data throughout the treatment process to guide planning and decision making and allow for adjustments to be made to optimize outcomes.

I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand the benefits of capturing, analyzing and leveraging data in our mental health programs and am a proponent of implementing more precision-based, data-driven treatment approaches across the industry using the following four key pillars as a foundation:

  • Data Collection and Evaluation – Gone are the days of using standard multiple choice questionnaires. Precision treatment requires the gathering and analyzing of literally thousands of data points daily through internationally validated assessments and in-depth conversations with clients, their families and treatment teams. This constant assessment and thorough evaluation is critical to extracting insights into what factors and events are impacting or impeding progress. By taking into account the individual differences in people’s environments, families and lifestyles, and having the ability to monitor peaks, valleys and trends in real-time, care teams can make better informed diagnoses and decisions.
  • Quality Assurance – To ensure consistent quality and safety, a comprehensive review must be implemented throughout the course of care to establish and maintain a baseline of accountability and transparency.
  • Collaboration – The best results and outcomes are generated when care teams work together across functions, programs and facilities to share best practices and fuel innovation.
  • Long-term Outcomes – Data collection following the conclusion of treatment is imperative to ensuring positive outcomes and lasting change.
  • This data-driven approach builds upon the Precision Medicine Initiative introduced by President Obama in 2015 and represents a groundbreaking model for the mental health industry that makes programs and services accountable, personalized and, ultimately, more effective. Additionally, it facilitates better integration with other healthcare professionals and insurance providers by validating the effects of services with concrete metrics.

What are your thoughts on the increasing role of online services for mental health i.e. using skype instead of being in person for people undergoing treatment?

I am excited about the opportunities that technology can provide in the treatment process.  While I don’t believe that it will ever replace treatment for patients with higher levels of acuity, I certainly think that telemedicine can open up the opportunity for treatment for populations that currently cannot afford or physically access traditional treatment options.

At InnerChange, we actively use Skype throughout the treatment process to involve and include family members and to provide a bridge for students who may be on a home visit or who have transitioned home, but still require additional follow up with their therapist.  It’s a great way to stay in touch and to reinforce some of the hard work that was done in person.

Where would you like to see InnerChange in 10 years?

I truly believe that InnerChange will revolutionize mental healthcare in our country. As I’ve already described, InnerChange is doing some very unique work in the utilization of data to help inform the course of treatment, as well as to demonstrate treatment effectiveness.  Historically, mental health care has generally not been vigilant or intensely focused on being objective or accountable to the effectiveness of treatment.  InnerChange is changing that paradigm.  Our approach is beneficial to ensuring that we’re doing our best work in healing families and it’s contributing to the movement we are all seeing in health care to focus on treatments that work and drive down costs simultaneously.

In addition to our future contributions in forging a nationally recognized gold standard of care, InnerChange will also broaden access to services for families in need by serving families in new and different ways than we do today.  We will have residential treatment centers and therapeutic boarding schools in more cities across the country.  We will also serve families in new and different settings (beyond the residential environment), such as in family homes, schools, colleges and communities.

Most importantly, we will always be innovating.  One of our Company values is to be a “Force of Change,” which means that we’re always looking for better ways to do the work that we do, and to be a change agent in forging that continuous improvement path.

What motivates you to get up and go to work every day?

There is no question that I am motivated to go to work every day by our vision to heal generations.  It is an honor and a privilege to help families become closer, better able to communicate and support each other, and lay the groundwork for a loving future together.  And when we say “heal generations,” we really mean that.  When a family comes through our doors, they are often afraid and in despair that their child may not make it through – that they may not live.  That is a dark and terrifying place.  We provide those families with hope.  Then, we teach them, together, how to navigate the challenges and support each other.  When our students or clients are ready to leave our treatment and return home, they have had their hope renewed and are on a path to many years together.  That translates into successful school experiences, graduations, marriages, babies and families.  It’s a wonderful gift to give the world every day.

What do you think are your biggest professional and/or personal accomplishments?  What did you learn from them?

I am very proud of being a mother of three amazing kids, a partner to a supportive husband, and a leader of a very special company.  I am also proud to be a role model for women in my life.  It’s not always been an easy road navigating leadership roles as a female in corporate environments.  In my experience, the characteristics that were deemed critical to be a successful executive weren’t always innate to me.  I didn’t want to be aggressive or overly competitive.  In fact, along my career journey, I have been told things like, “You aren’t enough of a capitalist to be a successful executive,” or “You are being emotional.”  I am proud that in those moments, I didn’t pretend to be something that I wasn’t.  I stayed true to myself because I believe that things like empathy and emotion can indeed make a very successful executive and leader.  I have learned that the very best leaders lead from a place of authenticity.

Are there any specific people that influenced you more than others?  How so?  What did they teach you?

I have been very fortunate to have many people along my career journey that believed in me and who encouraged me to push myself and reach a higher potential than I even imagined possible.  Some of the most important lessons were those that instilled a belief that anything was possible.  I am touched when I think about the time and investment these mentors placed in me.  Two people come to mind right now.  First, Stephen Guillard, formerly the Chief Operating Officer at HCR Manor Care, really took me under his wing.  I was very young and enthusiastic at the time, and he offered a wonderful balance of imparting the wisdom of patience and hard work, combined with the push to obtain my graduate degree and accept assignments that seemed beyond my abilities.  I remember he once told me that I could go as far as I wanted to in my career.  I often feel very grateful to Stephen for the gifts he imparted.  The second is Deb Cafaro, currently CEO of Ventas Health Care REIT.  My interactions with Deb have been limited, but I’ve been incredibly inspired by her leadership, fortitude, intelligence, strategic mind, and care for her teams and the patients they serve.  I have looked to her as an example of how a strong woman leader can really change the world.

As a leader of a large organization you have strong experience with teams and delegating responsibility.  What advice would you give to business owners who need to hire talent?  What are the most important things you look for in an employee?

Hands down, the most important characteristics I look for when hiring talent are passion for and commitment to our vision, mission and values.  While the work we do is very fulfilling, it’s also very hard at times.  On those tough days when we are drained and tired, it’s the fire inside of us to heal families that keeps us going.  You cannot replace that fundamental commitment to the work that we do with experience or skills or education.  Similarly, alignment in values is also critically important.  Every day, we make dozens of decisions in our interactions with families, co-workers, partners and vendors.  The way that we ensure consistency of experience directs us in how we behave.  Therefore, we spend a tremendous amount of time understanding the values of those interested in joining the InnerChange family.  As a company, we invest a tremendous amount in training and development because we believe that with this commitment to our mission and vision, and an alignment in values, that our leaders can be grown in a way that they are authentic to themselves and always improving!

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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