Women resurging as force in area hospital leadership

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:27 pm

Women resurging as force in area hospital leadership

By Kay Falk for SBT

The top posts in area hospitals, even those founded and operated by religious orders, are being more often filled today by lay women and men with health care and administrative backgrounds.
Women religious and their orders are still well steeped in health care here, but lay people, particularly men, have been appointed to top operating posts for years now.
"Every one of our hospitals used to have a sister as an administrator in the past, but as these women retired, they were frequently replaced by lay men," notes Sister Marybeth Culnan, regional vice president for five Wisconsin hospitals for Hospital Sisters Health System and chairman of the boards for St. Nicholas Hospital in Sheboygan, St. Vincent’s and St. Mary’s in Green Bay, Sacred Heart in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s in Chippewa Falls. "It was a matter of who applied and their qualifications," she adds.
Usually, those were men. But today, more women administrators are available, and they are starting to assume hospital leadership roles in southeastern Wisconsin. For example, the Hospital Sisters Health System appointed Mary Brasseaux as executive vice president and administrator of St. Nicholas in June 2002.
"She replaces Michael J. Stenger who was promoted to regional vice president-Illinois," Culnan says. "Meanwhile in Illinois, we also have a woman hospital administrator."
Two other Milwaukee-area female hospital presidents, Norma McCutcheon of the Wisconsin Heart and Debra Standridge of St. Francis, agree that top women hospital administrators are becoming more common.
"The health care field has always been attractive to women, with many nurses becoming directors of nursing, chief operating officers and now, CEOs," Standridge says. "As CEOs, women are not the majority, but it’s increasing. I recently attended a seminar for new (up to five years’ experience) CEOs with 75 people attending. Of that, six were women. The opportunities are there. At Covenant Healthcare, the chief administrative and nursing officers are both female. I expect to see more high-profile roles being filled by women as time goes by."
McCutcheon’s experience and observations concur. "The trend is definitely changing," she says. "As I look over my career, many women are rising to top management because they’ve had the exposure and education in several avenues and can help an organization."
She adds that top women administrators seem to be more prevalent on the East and West coasts, but the Midwest is close behind.
Hospital Sisters Health System seeks out qualified women candidates, but looks for people who will fit the organization, whether that’s a man or a woman. "We look for abilities, not gender," Culnan explains. "If candidates for top positions have had some caregiving or patient care experience, such as being nurses, orderlies, respiratory therapists, etc., that’s a bonus. It gives them a better understanding of the health care environment at the most basic level."
Rising from the ranks
If Culnan, McCutcheon and Standridge are any indication, that emphasis on patient care experience prior to taking on administrative roles in hospitals is the rule rather than the exception. All three women started in "front-line" positions in the health care field. They assumed management and administrative positions as openings and challenges presented themselves.
Culnan was a registered nurse who later obtained a master’s degree in nursing. "I came up the ladder gradually," she recalls. "Nothing drew me from clinical nursing to the administrative side except my religious community asking me to fill a position. As regional vice president, I work with the system president who has an administrative background, and the combination works well. I’ve had the position for 20 years now."
Her duties include:

  • Serving as a line officer of the system to the five Wisconsin hospitals.
  • Directing and reviewing those five hospital administrators from a system perspective.
  • Serving on all five boards.
  • Coordinating planning among the five hospitals, when needed.
  • Helping in candidate selection and orienting new hospital administrators to the system’s policies and procedures.

    McCutcheon goes from nurse to hospital president
    Norma McCutcheon, the president of the soon-to-be-open (January 2004) Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Wauwatosa, also began her career as a nurse in 1974. By 1983, she’d earned her bachelor of science degree in nursing and a desire to try new things.
    "With no management experience, I convinced a director of nursing I could take on a nonfunctional, disruptive intensive care unit nursing staff and change it into a streamlined, confident group," she recalls. "After two years, that had happened and I’d had fun helping it happen. It let me know that management was an enjoyable way to use my nursing skills to help other nurses provide better patient care."
    That experience embarked McCutcheon on a career in cardiac care management. She spent 1990 to 1997 in the Milwaukee area working as a product line manager for St. Luke’s Hospital and the Aurora Health System. "I managed nursing and ancillary services, covering all phases of health care including working closely with physicians, marketing and business development," she says.
    From Milwaukee, she moved to Philadelphia to become vice president of cardiac services at a large hospital. "It turned out to be a tumultuous time," McCutcheon admits. "I went intending to build an organization and ended up assuming nursing administration as well as cardiac oversight and holding things together during a crisis period that ended with the hospital going bankrupt."
    She and her husband missed their families and the Midwest, so she contacted former colleagues and friends in the area. "They told me I had to come to Milwaukee, there was so much activity in health care here," she recalls. "I heard about a joint venture of physicians and the community, then learned about Covenant Healthcare and realized it was a good fit, so I began as a consultant to help close the initial offering for the Wisconsin Heart Hospital. I put my foot forward and was asked to serve as its first president, which I’ve done since March 2002."
    She describes the position as "an exciting, challenging and overwhelming opportunity that you don’t fall into very often. I’ve tried to bring my clinical background, passion for patient care and interest in promoting the care of caregivers (physician, staff and families) and build something from the ground up, creating a new trend in health care."
    Currently, McCutcheon and her staff are setting up the infrastructure needed in a cardiac and vascular specialty hospital. That included building a culture, recruiting and developing staff, establishing policy and procedures, seeing all licensures are completed and organizing the medical staff. "We’re pulling those pieces together now, working fast and juggling every day," she notes. "Everyone on staff pitches in where needed, and we’re having fun doing it."
    Once the hospital is up and running, McCutcheon says her responsibilities will be:

  • To be chief listener, someone available to help strategically move the organization forward with the input of interested key stakeholders. "These include financial investors, staff, management, more than 90 physicians, patients and visitors," she explains.
  • To keep the organization moving and focused.
  • To reach out to the community, but in alignment with other providers, not recreating everything.

    From music to keeping a hospital ‘in tune’
    Debra Standridge, president of St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee began her direct patient care as a music and dance therapist at California State mental health institutions. "I moved into health education and promotion and rose through the ranks, obtaining a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan in 1986," she says.
    With more than 20 years’ experience in health care, she’s worked in community health education, worksite wellness program development and delivery, service line management, operational leadership, and administration of general medicine, oncology, cardiology and geriatric services.
    Standridge joined St. Francis in 2001 as vice president, operations and became interim president in February 2003 following the promotion of then president Dan Bonk to leadership of St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Milwaukee. (Both entities are part of Covenant Healthcare.) In June, she was named hospital president.
    Her duties are also myriad:

  • Making sure the hospital’s strategic direction correlates with Covenant’s.
  • Leading all strategic planning.
  • Providing vision for everyone involved in the hospital or "showing them where we’re going and how we’ll know if we get there," she says.
  • Acting as liaison to physicians and assuring they’re satisfied.
  • Leading the staff in service excellence.
  • Assuring financial stability.

    Aug. 8, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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