A Fresh Perspective on Cancer Care
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Highlands Oncology Group's Jeff Hunnicutt stays focused on value, innovation for patients in Northwest Arkansas
Jeff Hunnicutt is committed to bringing world-class cancer treatment to patients in Arkansas. As Highlands Oncology Group's first CEO, the Washington native is focused on delivering tech savvy, value-based care to more than 13,000 patients each year.
"I had a very unorthodox transition into oncology," said Hunnicutt, who joined Highlands in 2018. Originally from Port Orchard, Washington, he received his Bachelor of Science in information technology and organizational management from Washington's Northwest University before working as a software developer and Webmaster. In 2005 he joined Tacoma's Northwest Medical Specialties as director of technology - a position he filled until 2013 when he was named COO of the oncology practice. "I worked with a CEO who had a vision of integrating technology into their operational process," he explained. "In IT you touch every area, and if you're paying attention to how things work, you can think of tech solutions to operational problems, which was unorthodox but effective."
While working as COO, Hunnicutt served as executive director of the Quality Cancer Care Alliance, where he crossed paths with leaders from Highlands Oncology Group. In 2018, the family of six became Arkansans after a surprising visit to Northwest Arkansas. "They invited us out to take a look, and it blew our socks off," Hunnicutt said of his first visit to the Natural State. "We were shocked at how nice it was here." Two weeks after his arrival, Hunnicutt joined in the groundbreaking for Highlands' 125,000 square-foot center along I-49 in Springdale. The facility opened in 2020, marking a halfway point between Highlands' cancer centers in Rogers and Fayetteville. The spacious Springdale facility now houses clinical and administrative services, business offices, physical therapy and other support services, with room to grow.
2020 brought unprecedented healthcare challenges, and Highlands was no exception. Fortunately, Hunnicutt took lessons from Washington colleagues, among the first nationally to combat COVID-19. "Arkansas was a little later in the process, so it was nice to have an educational pipeline to give us a leg up and a faster way of getting processes, policies and procedures in place," he said. Highlands also had introduced limited telehealth services at the end of 2019 - a fortuitous decision that would be rolled out system wide months later. Hunnicutt also relied on relationships with the QCCA, which was quick to share best practices among cancer centers nationwide. "When they looked at the impact, they saw that it came down to three main areas: Geographical location of the practice, the time at which COVID hit and the number of services available within your own walls," he said. "At Highlands, many surgeries and scans are performed in-house, so we didn't see the 40 percent dip that other centers did."
In 2021, Highlands announced a formal partnership with Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home - their first venture outside Northwest Arkansas. While a new cancer center is expected in 2022, Hunnicutt said additional statewide expansion isn't on the radar. "The organic growth we've experienced in Northwest Arkansas has made a lot of sense," he said. "We're home grown, and people here in Northwest Arkansas still need high quality cancer care." Highlands also relies on long-standing relationships with local hospitals and UAMS, and in 2021 will launch a spiritual care partnership with John Brown University in Siloam Springs.
Hunnicutt, who oversees a team of 500, cites staff engagement as a crucial piece of his leadership style. "It's important to create an environment where people feel cared for, valued and supported," he said, noting a recent staff retention improvement of 40 percent. "Highlands already had that, but we've been able to improve on it by distinguishing between satisfaction and engagement. Satisfaction will bring people in the door, but engagement is what keeps them from walking back out." The IT veteran also is committed to innovative technology for patients and staff. "In Washington, my practice gained a reputation for being the first to work with vendors on cutting edge technology and software, and I was energized to continue that type of work at Highlands," he said. The Arkansas practice was recently among the first in the nation to offer Electronic Patient Reported Outcomes - a mobile app facilitating communication between patients and providers. Hunnicutt also has prioritized value-based care, demonstrating high quality practices while reducing the financial burden on patients. In 2021, 50 percent of Highlands patients participated in a value-based care program, typically from Humana or Medicare's Oncology Care Model - the largest value-based care initiative in the US for oncology patients.
Today, Highlands ranks among the top 10 percent of oncology practices in the nation - an accomplishment Hunnicutt credits to the group's physicians. "This is a great group of doctors, and it's more of a partnership than in any other place I've been," he said. "Any physician will say they put patients first, and that's true at different levels, but I've never seen a practice own that statement more. As an administrator I have to focus on the business side of things, but the physicians won't allow business to be put first. What's best for patients truly comes first, and business second."
Going forward, Hunnicutt hopes to continue fostering an environment where employees love to work, while bringing world-class care to Northwest Arkansas. "Long term, I want to be part of building that on a larger scale," he explained. "That means building more partnerships with local hospitals and educational facilities with a common goal of innovating our local healthcare system and transforming healthcare by keeping people here at home."