St. John’s Health interim CEO David “Dave” Robertson knows he’s coming into his new leadership role at a tough time.
COVID-19 cases are surging in Jackson Hole, and the hospital handling the sickest patients, St. John’s Health, is still dealing with fallout from its former CEO leaving after just six months.
But Robertson isn’t new to the community — he’s been a hospital board advisor for 3.5 years — and he’s hopeful a familiar face will restore a sense of comfort.
Meeting the News&Guide for a Q&A session Monday morning, Robertson was accompanied by St. John’s Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly, who has seen a revolving door of CEOs during her tenure and was grateful for the ease of this transition.
“I’ve been at the hospital a long time, so I’ve been through several leadership transitions. And as a staff person myself,” Connelly said, “staff are relieved to not have a lapse in their ability to continue doing the work that they know needs to be done.”
During the interview, Robertson described his three main goals for the hospital and his strategy for moving beyond the turmoil caused by his predecessor.
Q: You’re coming into this new role at a busy time for the hospital. Where’s your head at and what are you finding yourself managing most?
A: Initially, what I’m focused on most is the leadership transition and everything that goes with that: meeting people; getting my arms around the key strategic issues for the health system; getting up to speed with our organizational COVID response.
I’m not a complete unknown to the organization, I’ve been an advisor to the board for the last four years. So I’ve been around. I’m certainly better known to anyone in management than to the frontline staff.
Q: In terms of frontline staff that you’re meeting and newly interacting with, what are the greatest concerns you’re hearing from them?
A: I don’t know that I would say that the discussions are really necessarily focused on concerns, although that’s not to say that I don’t occasionally hear of concerns. What people are most interested in is getting to know me a bit as a person.
Q: Do you feel that staff concerns aren’t reaching you?
A: I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that when I sit and meet with people for the first time, I don’t think that the first thing that people offer up is a list of concerns. Initially, [we’re] getting to know [each other] and making a connection as individuals.
Q: What is the hospital doing to address the housing crisis, specifically for nursing staff?
A: It’s really impossible for St. John’s to address everyone’s needs and desires in terms of housing. For example, individuals who want to have a path to ownership of a home, that’s a very difficult thing for St. John’s, or really any employer, to deal with.
Our focus is very much going to be on development of an inventory of hospital owned- or hospital controlled-apartments that are for rent at an affordable rate ... We will start with projects on land that the hospital already owns.
Q: Is housing needed more for recruitment or retention?
A: It’s both. For our staff who already have a housing solution, then the development of apartments isn’t going to do a lot for retention… [but] that can change if the owner of the home or apartment they rent sells. Then they can find themselves in need of housing overnight.
Recruitment today is almost impossible without a housing solution.
Q: Is the hospital currently short-staffed?
A: Yes, we have open positions. But in health care — and in a workforce with an excess of 850 employees — we always have open positions.
Q: What’s been the impact of St. John’s nearing capacity of COVID-19 patients?
A: There’s no question that it is stressful for everyone in healthcare, particularly for frontline caregivers.
It is exhausting. It is mentally draining. Oftentimes in order to meet the staffing needs, people are working with fewer days off. It takes a toll. It takes an emotional and physical toll.
Q: Do you feel like there’s anything you can do as an employer to try to mitigate some of those adverse impacts?
A: Certainly we can do everything we can to recruit. But as we said, with the housing situation, that is more difficult today than it has ever been. The bottom line is, it is a function of numbers. And long term, the answer has to be in creating an environment that we can recruit more healthcare professionals.
Q: Are staff leaving because of the housing market?
A: It’s a really double-edged sword. We’ve had people leave who own homes, because it’s a good time to sell. And yet, when they sell and they leave the community, then that’s a position that’s going to be difficult to fill because we’re going to have to recruit from outside where someone doesn’t have a housing solution.
Q: Are staff leaving for other reasons?
A: Every hospital, every healthcare environment in the country, is seeing people leave the profession because of the stress and the health risks to themselves and their families as a result of the work that they do.
Q: How do we get through COVID to where the hospital isn’t running up against the breaking point, and we can get back to the other kinds of critical patient care that’s needed?
A: Well, the other kinds of critical patient care that are needed are still being met. We’re doing that side-by-side with COVID. The reality is that at least for the foreseeable future, COVID isn’t going away.
However, medicine has a very long track record of finding ways over time to mitigate the impact.
Q: What are your top three goals as interim CEO?
A: 1. Create a comfort level within the hospital family of stability and calm ... I’ve probably said it now, in the first month, at least 100 times: I am willing to talk to anybody about anything anytime.
2. To come in, and through a fresh set of eyes, look at the organization and assess and identify where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are.
3. Assess the leadership needs of the organization to help guide the board — through the eyes of a CEO — on what we should be looking for in terms of our next CEO.
Q: What are the plans for the Living Center building?
A: The Living Center will not remain intact as the structure that we know it today. The wing closest to Sage Living has to be demolished from a fire code standpoint.
But in the shorter term ... that’s a very logical place for us to put multiple outpatient COVID-related services, so that we are minimizing the amount of intermingling of COVID positive patients with the overall hospital population.