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Storyteller-in-Chief: From the Patient’s Lips to the Doctor’s Ear…

I was in fourth grade and at soccer practice when the most intense headache of my life brought me to my knees.

My parents rushed me to Raleigh Fitkin-Paul Morgan Memorial Hospital (now Jersey Shore University Medical Center), where doctors placed me in an isolation room for what felt like weeks. Not knowing yet whether my undiagnosed illness was contagious, my doctors, nurses and frightened parents wore protective gowns while visiting me.

Alone in that room, in that hospital, I could hardly piece together what was going on. But I knew it was serious.

After two terrifying and painful spinal taps, I was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, or inflammation of my brain and spinal cord. After that I was moved out of isolation and into a hospital room, where my mother held vigil by my bed until I was released.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that experience would prove powerful enough to shape the course of my career. I would recall the sterile feel of the hospital, the compassion shown me by the caregivers there and the worry in my parents’ eyes.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, I realized that health care — good or bad — can have a tremendous and unalterable impact on the trajectory of a life. I knew then that I wanted to play some role in making it better.

On my path to leadership eight years ago, I was working at a health system in South Dakota. Like most other organizations, this one was grappling with an assemblage of pieces — declining reimbursement, low caregiver morale, patient dissatisfaction — that together created a picture of an industry in dire need of a new direction.

That’s when the CEO of the company plopped down on my desk a copy of Transforming Health Care, the story of Virginia Mason Medical Center’s pursuit of higher quality, lower-cost health care. The thrust of the book is simple yet powerful: by transforming what we do from a bottom-up versus top-down approach, we empower our caregivers to do what they do best.

It has meant embracing the idea that leaders of organizations aren’t the experts — their employees are. We create the vision and build structure around it  — the “why” — then let the great people we have hired solve the “how.” Hear and heed the collective wisdom of your organization.

This really hit home for me when I visited Appleton, Wisc.-based ThedaCare. This is an organization that has embraced this philosophy and has been on the journey of transforming not only its culture but also the way it takes care of its patients for many years. ThedaCare empowers its frontline caregivers to eliminate waste to improve the way care is delivered. It is impressive to see caregivers’ high level of engagement and the changes they’ve accomplished.

Caregivers want to have an impact — and do — if no one is telling them, “Here’s what you need to do, and this is how you’re going to do it.” The trickle-down effect is the elimination of waste and inefficiencies, making health care better, safer and more affordable.

My leadership journey has led me to a place where I truly embrace and understand that the two guiding principles of Lean apply at every level of every organization. The first is respect for people and the second is continuous improvement. They go hand in hand. By asking frontline caregivers how they would change their processes to reduce waste and improve care and then listening to them and taking action, we are able to make a difference one patient at a time.

And having been a young, frightened patient at one time in my own life, I understand that every step we take toward a better health care system is ultimately benefiting our families, friends and neighbors throughout the communities we serve.

Joe Sluka is president and CEO of St. Charles Health System.

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