Ascension's new chief community impact officer on why she took the job: 'We run to the poor and vulnerable'

Stacy Garrett-Ray, MD, didn't hesitate to take on the role of chief community impact officer for St. Louis-based Ascension.

Dr. Garrett-Ray began the position Oct. 18 after serving as vice president and medical director of the University of Maryland Medical System's Population Health Services Organization in Baltimore.

She told Becker's Hospital Review she felt connected to the mission of Ascension, which operates more than 140 U.S. hospitals. She also said she felt the COVID-19 pandemic has shed additional light onto the importance of the job.

The pandemic has "highlighted inequities in healthcare, social determinants of health, biases, access to care. There is a need for all of us to come in and move and help and partner with organizations to move these things forward," said Dr. Garrett-Ray.

She added, "What drew me to taking this role is when I heard from my boss that we're an organization that runs to those in need. We run to the poor and vulnerable. That resonated with my 'why' and my purpose. It wasn't, 'Why would I take this during the pandemic?' It was, 'Why not. This is where I need to be.'"

As chief community impact officer, Dr. Garrett-Ray's responsibilities include developing and implementing strategies to address community needs and improve healthcare access.

Here, she offers some advice for women who want to become a health system executive, outlines her goals for the next year and shares her insights about the chief community impact officer role in healthcare.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What would you say to a woman who aspires to become a health system executive?

Dr. Garrett-Ray: I would tell anyone, "Go for it," if that aligns with your passion and purpose and you want to create change. I would tell anyone to bring 100 percent of you to any table you come to. Regardless of who you are, your brain and perspective are needed. It makes us become better the more inclusive we are at a healthcare system, which ultimately improves performance of organizations.

I also strongly encourage mentorship as well as sponsorship for women who want to go and be a health system executive. I am very blessed I have mentors and great sponsors and leaders within this organization who have helped to support me.

If it aligns with your "why" and the gifts that you have, don't hold back because those are allowing you to make a difference in the delivery of healthcare for others.

Q: What are your goals for the next year? What will success look like?

SGR: I have four focus areas for community impact: health equity, social determinants of health, education and training, community impact investments/engagements, and partnerships and innovations, all with a goal to be able to advance the health and well-being of the communities we serve.

We are not only making an impact short term, but understanding transformation takes time to reach its fullest potential. With all we do, we want to strive to make generational impact and make sure these are sustainable, align with bringing just initiatives to the communities we serve, as well as improving health outcomes for those we care for.

Other areas are ensuring that our initiatives are aligning with our strategic plan and our mission. Then also prioritizing efforts that are transforming not only the tangible but the intangible because community impact requires the alignment of our culture as an organization to ensure we have safe environments as well as advocacy for advancing that type of equity and dignity and respect and justice that are needed.

Additionally, I'll be working on data and analytics. That's the backbone of what's needed for healthcare in terms of true population health management. How do we monitor and track what we're doing, promote our continuous improvement? The other is access to affordable care, so really addressing the individual and community needs. That's looking at social determinants. That's looking at our culture and language and our race and ethnicity and being partners with the community. This requires we have presence and that we listen, and this becomes a participatory experience.

Q: The chief community impact officer role is not extremely common at health systems. What place do you see this role having in healthcare and where do you see it going? 

SGR: I think there will be more health systems that are going to develop or modify roles to align with this. Community impact allows you to look not only at those four focus areas, but how you work with everyone to ensure we are connecting those dots. The strategic partnerships we have within the community or the engagement we have with our community's health ministries or outreach teams and bringing that together with our data and analytics and sitting back and being able to look at our plan together and look at how we changed the delivery of our clinical care but also our other care at large.

Many organizations are asking, "How are we going to make sure we help the community throughout the continuum of care and make generational impact and look at sustainability?" You see there are many that have value-based care. This aligns with that. This is looking at how we look at the value that we provide in terms of healthcare organizations to drive generational impact and change and improve equity, provide quality healthcare that is affordable and access.

If other healthcare organizations don't embrace the partnership we have with the community, as well as the responsibility we have as a healthcare system, then we go back to where we were before. It's looking at the opportunities we have in front of us, things that have been brought up during the pandemic, and then saying, "How can we become better?"

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