In behavioral economics, the sunk cost fallacy describes the tendency to carry on with a project or investment past the point where cold logic would suggest it is not working out. Given human nature, the existence of the sunk cost fallacy is not surprising. The more resources—time, money, emotions—we devote to an effort, the more we want it to succeed, especially when the cause is an important one.
Under normal circumstances, the sunk cost fallacy might qualify as an interesting but not especially important economic theory. But at the moment, given that 2022 will likely be the worst financial year for hospitals since 2008 and given that the hospital revenue/expense relationship seems to be entirely broken, there is little that is theoretical about the sunk cost fallacy. Instead, the sunk cost fallacy becomes one of the most important action ideas in the hospital industry’s absolutely necessary financial recovery.
Historically, cases of the sunk cost fallacy can be relatively easy to spot. However, in real time, cases can be hard to identify and even harder to act on. For hospital organizations that are subsidizing underperforming assets, identifying and acting on these cases is now essential to the financial health of most hospital enterprises.
For example, perhaps the asset that is underperforming is a hospital acquired by a health system. (Although this same concept could apply to a service line or a related service such as a skilled nursing facility, ambulatory surgery center, or imaging center.) The costs associated with integrating an acquired hospital into a health system are typically significant. And chances are, if the hospital was struggling prior to the acquisition, the purchaser made substantial capital investments to improve the performance.
As time goes on, if the financial performance of the entity in question continues to fall short, hospital executives may be reluctant to divest the asset because of their heavy investment in it. This understandable tendency can lead the acquiring organization to throw good money after bad. After all, even when an asset is underperforming, it can’t be allowed to deteriorate. In the case of hospitals, that’s not just a matter of keeping weeds from sprouting in the parking lot. The health system often winds up supporting an underperforming hospital with both working capital and physical capital, which compounds the losses.
And the costs don’t stop there, because other assets in the system are supporting the underperforming asset. This de facto cross-subsidy has been commonplace in hospital organizations for decades. Such a cross subsidy was probably never sustainable, but it is even less so in the current challenging financial environment.
This is a transformative period in American healthcare, when hospital organizations are faced with the need to fundamentally reinvent themselves both financially and clinically. The opportunity costs of supporting assets that don’t have an appropriate return are uniquely high in such an environment. This is true whether the underperforming asset is a hospital in a smaller system, multiple hospitals in a larger system, or a service line within a hospital. The money that is being funneled off to support underperforming assets may be better directed, for example, toward realigning the organization’s portfolio away from inpatient care and toward growth strategies. In some cases, the resources may be needed for more immediate purposes, such as improving cash flow to support mission priorities and avoiding downgrades of the organization’s credit rating.
The underlying principle is straightforward: When a hospital supports too many low-performing assets, the capital allocation process becomes inefficient. Directing working capital and capital capacity toward assets that are dilutive to long-term financial success means that assets that are historically or potentially accretive don’t receive the resources they need to grow and thrive. The underlying principle is a clear lose-lose.
In the highly challenging current environment, it is especially important for boards and management to recognize the sunk cost fallacy and determine the right size of their hospital organizations—both clinically and financially. Some leadership teams may determine that their organizations are too big, or too big in the wrong places, and need to be smaller in order to maximize clinical and balance-sheet strength. Other leadership teams may determine that their organizations are not large enough to compete effectively in their fast-changing markets or in a fast-changing economy.
Organizational scale is a strategy that must be carefully managed. A properly sized organization maximizes its chances of financial success in this very difficult inflationary period. Such an organization invests consistently in its best performing assets and reduces cross-subsidies to services and products that have outlived their opportunity for clinical or financial success.
Executives may see academic economic theory as arcane and not especially relevant. However, we have clearly entered a financial moment when paying attention to the sunk cost fallacy will be central to maintaining, or recovering, the financial, clinical, and mission strength of America’s hospitals.