At last week’s American Hospital Association Annual Membership Meeting, some of health care’s top thought leaders pondered the many challenges now facing the field, particularly as hospitals explore the best ways to, as AHA President and CEO Rich Umbdenstock says, “redefine the H.”

Among the many speakers in Washington, D.C., two themes dominated: the need for hospitals to evolve from an exclusive focus on sick care to one that also promotes health and wellness, and — closely related to that — the imperative to strengthen the continuum of care by working not only with post-acute and other providers, but also with community organizations whose primary focus is on social issues. Factors ranging from income to housing to transportation are significant determinants of an individual’s health, as well as his or her access to care.

HCA’s Jonathan Perlin, M.D., illustrated the point dramatically during a speech following his investiture as 2015 AHA chair last Monday. He recalled “the single most powerful prescription I ever wrote.”

As a young doctor in the Veterans Health Administration, Perlin had a patient with serious emphysema. His condition worsened every summer and he had to be admitted to the hospital repeatedly.

“Unfortunately, more than once, he ended up on a ventilator in the intensive care unit,” Perlin said, “and while it is technically true that great care saved his life, it’s equally true that far too frequent hospitalizations impaired his quality of life.” 

That’s when Perlin wrote the powerful prescription that helped the patient stay out of the hospital all summer long. 

“You’ve probably guessed,” Perlin told the auditorium filled with health care professionals, “the prescription was for a window air-conditioner.”

What’s the lesson for the field? “We need to build a system that not only provides great care, but greatly fosters health and well-being,” the new AHA chair said. “I believe that the turbulence we face today compels us to redefine the hospital of yesterday for the health care of tomorrow.”