It’s quite an honor to be recognized as a Woman of the Year. At the same time, it’s a humbling experience, because I am acutely aware of all those who play key roles alongside me to lead the transformation of our health system in Michigan and now nationally at Ascension Health.
I’m grateful, to my family, especially my husband Sam, – as well as to my dear friends and associates who are with me here today; to Tony Tersigni and Bob Henkel, who’ve been such tremendous mentors for me over the years; to Annalisa and Shideh. And to my Ascension colleagues – too many to name – whose commitment to our vision, mission and values are an inspiration for me, each and every day.
There are many turning points I could describe in my life – starting with when I learned, early on, that the healthcare system is complex and intimidating. My mother was diagnosed with diabetes at an early age and as the oldest daughter it often fell to me to help coordinate her care – including frequent hospitalizations. That early experience convinced me that navigating the healthcare system when you have multiple chronic health problems is extremely difficult. This is what inspired my passion, helping to create a solution, through a career in healthcare.
My defining moment came when I had a chance to lead just such an effort starting in 2008, when I was named CEO of what was then known as St. John Health in Detroit. The assignment came at a difficult time. Unemployment was high, GM and Chrysler were about to declare bankruptcy, and the number of Medicaid and uninsured patients were soaring.
That reality certainly caught my attention. The assignment was clear – to figure out a way to ensure our presence in the community, while continuing to pay attention to the needs of the poor and vulnerable.
We knew we had to do things much differently than ever before. St. John Health had already closed a community hospital in 2007. Yet we still had huge operating losses. So the numbers told me we faced a startling choice … change or disappear.
The challenge was that my leadership team did not agree with that assessment – at least not at first. When I laid out the facts the reaction of the leadership team was not surprisingly one of disbelief. Shock. Dismay. Frankly, many of them looked at me as the problem. They said, “You haven’t been here long enough! How could you possibly be reaching those conclusions?”
Right away, I knew this assignment would demand something different from me. I had to step up…and lead with courage to counter the anger and resistance I felt initially from the team. I resolved to do that by building the business case more thoroughly. I knew I would need the numbers – rock solid numbers – in order to move their heads, and then, I would need to move their hearts.
It was an exhausting process – but I simply had to figure out how to get key leaders to understand and bring them along. Meeting after meeting, discussion after discussion… It took a few months, but the tide had begun to turn. I realized one day that I wasn’t exhausted any more, that the team around me had actually become energized by the challenge of transformation.
They were now coming to me with new ideas. It was no longer my plan … but our plan. I won’t say that any of this was easy. We had to start by making painful decisions to eliminate many non-patient care positions. We looked for other ways to improve business operations, too – to drive further savings. It became clear we also had to figure out how to include physicians in the transformation process – to partner with them, as well.
Along the way, we took a close look at our footprint, and came to some critical decisions about how best to structure ourselves going forward. That involved some more tough calls and complicated negotiations.
We also made changes to better integrate the six St. John and Providence Hospitals within the Health System… becoming one St. John Providence Health System – an identity change that was both a huge symbolic gesture, and a chance to boost the integration process into high gear.
In addition, we began looking outside Detroit for opportunities to use our scale more effectively. We created a council of CEOs in Michigan to consider how we might work together. That drove changes in our configuration across the state – as we identified the best ways for Ascension Health Michigan to pilot and test new models of delivery. Besides focusing on costs we focused on top line growth by developing regional networks of care.
Today, we’re seeing the impact of those efforts – as patients are coming from all across Michigan to receive transplants or cancer treatments or heart and vascular services. Then, when they return home, they receive outstanding follow-up care from the satellite facilities Ascension Health now offers in their communities. Again, we see how powerful collaboration could be in fueling our transformation.
There have been a number of bold moves all of them built on a foundation of trust and partnership – not only internally, but among the physician community and our external business partners as well. It is a story of transformation, inspired by innovation. But just as importantly, it is a story driven by extraordinary collaboration.
So in that spirit, I gratefully accept the Woman of the Year award in my mother’s memory, who died from complications of her disease. She would be proud knowing her daughter is working to make a difference in transforming healthcare.