Corner office: Greater Waterbury Health Network, Waterbury Hospital CEO Darlene Stromstad on excelling despite distractions

Darlene Stromstad is used to working under pressure. As president and CEO of Waterbury (Conn.) Hospital and the Greater Waterbury Health Network, of which the hospital is a part, she has shepherded the organization forward despite facing serious financial difficulties.

Inextricable from financial strains are the cultural impacts that they produce, especially when the hospital leadership is forced to make tough choices, such as the decision to downsize. Like many other independent community hospitals around the U.S. that are navigating the turbulent waters of healthcare reform, Waterbury Hospital has dealt with these financial and cultural challenges. However with Ms. Stromstad at the helm, the hospital has preserved an immensely positive culture of teamwork, compassion and joy.

Ms. Stromstad has served in her current role since July 2011. Her relentless pursuit of excellence and attention to cultural transformation is shown in the Waterbury Darlene StromstadHospital's improvements in quality indicators of care, greater patient satisfaction and recognition of the hospital by U.S. News & World Report, Consumer Reports and Healthgrades, among other ranking organizations.

Before joining Greater Waterbury Health Network and Waterbury Hospital, Ms. Stromstad served as president and CEO of Goodall Hospital in Sanford, Maine. She also served as senior vice president of Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H.

Ms. Stromstad is actively engaged in a variety of local, state and national organizations. She is a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and has served as an ACHE regent for Maine, a member of the national Board of Governors of ACHE, and now serves on the ACHE Ethics Committee. She is also a member of the board of the Connecticut Association Health Care Executives and the Connecticut Hospital Association. Recently she became a member of the American Hospital Association’s Metropolitan Hospital Council.

Here, Ms. Stromstad took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

Note: Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare? 

Healthcare was not my first career, but I became really interested in it because of its complexity. Healthcare is such a fascinating and complicated industry, yet it is so meaningful in its simplest form — taking care of patients.

What do you enjoy most about Waterbury, Conn.?

Greater Waterbury is a microcosm of the whole United States. It is a very diverse community. Within a 30 mile radius, there are people of every socioeconomic status, every religion and every nationality. There are people who are just arriving in the U.S. to build better lives for their families, and there are families that have been here for many generations. Our service area encompasses some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people in the country. It is big enough to be interesting, but small enough that everyone has to matter. The people that live here are very proud and work hard to strengthen the Greater Waterbury community.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

There is still a lack of access to healthcare for many people, even if it is only because they perceive they don't have access. There are members of this community that do not know how to use the healthcare system. There are many reasons for that, including socioeconomic and language barriers. Some may be intimidated by the size of hospitals and intimidated to go to the doctor's office. We need to find better ways to bring healthcare to where people live, delivered in a way that is meaningful to them. The causes are complicated, but every day we are taking care of patients whose illnesses are preventable. They are not accessing healthcare in a way that works for them.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

One of the things I enjoy the most outside of the C-suite is being engaged and involved in the community as a volunteer. I serve on boards and I'm very active in several civic organizations. I enjoy being a part of a myriad of things that help strengthen the community. That's maybe more passion than skill.

How do you revitalize yourself?

For starters, I try to live a healthy lifestyle. I eat healthy food and I exercise on a very regular basis. I run, I hike and I take yoga classes. Exercise helps with the stress. When I first moved to Connecticut, I made a list of all of the hiking trails and state parks, and so far I've made my way through many of them. Within an hour of my home I can be on countless trails and hiking paths. On the other extreme, I live 90 minutes away from New York City. I love to go into the city and feel the energy — go to the theater, listen to great music. I'm a great tourist.

I am fortunate to have cultivated a large and tight-knit group of friends who absolutely add to the general health of my life. I purposely schedule them into my calendar; I don't leave it to chance.  

While at work, I can literally just walk around the hospital building and my mood will improve, based on the people I see and talk to — both patients and employees. If I need to be cheered up, if the stress is getting to me, I can call a particular nurse manager and say I'd like to meet some patients. I'll talk to patients and their families for a while, and I always feel better. It reminds me of the importance of the work we are doing here.

What is one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

There are two. The first is to never ask someone to do something that you wouldn't do yourself. I am very mindful of that. Much of my career has been about transformations, so frequently I've had to make tough decisions about downsizing. You sit across the table from someone and what you say will change their lives. It's painful and it's hard. Delivering bad news, whether to an individual about a job loss or to a community about a failed transaction — these are not tasks you can give to someone else to do for you. As a leader you must be engaged and involved personally.

The other piece of advice is to never lose your own moral compass. There are times when the decision-making we do in healthcare is in a gray area. A great example is inheriting promises made by others. You have to weigh honoring a promise made to the situation you are currently in. A contract is a contract, and a promise is promise. These can be tough situations, and they happen more often than you'd think. It could be about something small, or something substantial. But in each case, you have to demonstrate to your organization that although you don't play favorites, there may be times when someone deserves special consideration. As the CEO, your perspective needs to be broader than others, and you need to trust your own decision-making process.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Greater Waterbury (Conn.) Health Network/Waterbury Hospital so far?

 As of July 1st I will have been here for five years. It's been five years of tremendous distractions, trials and tribulations. We've had several years of financial challenges, two failed acquisition transactions, and we have also negotiated several union contracts during what has been a very tumultuous time. Mergers and acquisitions are enormously challenging in themselves, but especially so in a highly regulated environment, while transitioning from nonprofit to for-profit. It has also been a very public process; it is not unusual for us to be on the front page of the local newspaper.

When I first got here, I talked candidly to our employees and physicians about these distractions and the need to continue to work effectively despite them. We have one promise and that is to our patients: We will keep them at the center of everything we do.  We refer to it as "Our Promise." I believe we've done that. Our patients trust us. That focus has strengthened our culture. Asking ourselves if we are living up to that promise helps guide everyone in the work that they do. We are all proud of this hospital and the care we provide. It doesn't cost anything to be nice to people, to keep our organization clean and to not tolerate clutter. Everyone has the opportunity to make positive changes and contribute to improving how we do our work every day. I'm very proud of the culture of this organization. I'm very proud of our employees and physicians and they know it.

Our industry is going through so much change, and navigating these changes requires a certain level of courage and trust in yourself and your experience to guide your organization forward. I don't think there has been a more meaningful time to be in healthcare than right now.

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