Corner Office: Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital CEO Caitlin Stella on how payer, provider struggles hurt patients

Caitlin Stella has held a number of healthcare leadership positions, though in no other role has she been able to advocate for patients as much as she has in her short time as CEO of Hollywood, Fla.-based Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.

Ms. Stella began her career in healthcare as the program administrator at the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at Los Angeles-based UCLA Health System's Neuropsychiatric Institute before going on to become a manager in PricewaterhouseCoopers' national healthcare consulting practice. She then joined Children's Hospital Los Angeles as director of provider programs and outreach before heading back to UCLA Health to be executive director of women's and children's services and chief administrator of UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital and Women's Health. In July 2018, she was appointed CEO of Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.

Ms. Stella earned a bachelor's degree in family and child development from Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech University and a master's degree in public health from UCLA.

Ms. Stella recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and style

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

Caitlin Stella: The reason I went into healthcare was personal. My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school and, until that exposure to chronic illness, I had only experienced healthcare in terms of wellness. I watched my family try to figure out the healthcare system, struggling to figure out drug coverage and insurance issues. It was overwhelming, confusing, and difficult to navigate.  On the flip side, I loved seeing the care team interact with my grandfather and my family. They were so compassionate and kind. I grew to love being in a healthcare environment because  I enjoy working with people and being service-oriented, so I thought working in healthcare I could combine those.

I became very passionate about improving the healthcare system because I watched my family struggle with  understanding it. The reason I went into healthcare, and what continues to drive me every day, is a desire to make the system as easy as possible for families and children. Because when your family member is sick, especially a child, the last thing in the world you want to worry about is navigating the system. Making the experience as easy as possible and combining that with kindness and the compassion is what it’s all about for me.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Hollywood?

CS: I lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years and went from one Hollywood to another. What I love most about this Hollywood compared to the one I came from is the people. The people in this community are phenomenal. The wonderful people within the walls of this hospital are so warm and welcoming. They've created a playful, loving and home-like environment for our patients and their families.

I've found that the whole community is like that. Anyone I've met — even if they don't know what I do — tries to connect me to something, introduce me to someone or recommend something to do because they know I'm new in town. When they find out I'm working at Joe DiMaggio, they say, "Oh my gosh what can I do, how can I help?" I've found this to be a welcoming place both within these walls and outside of them, with warm and caring people.

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

CS: No question it would be related to barriers to care created by insurance and provider network limitations. I understand the importance of having to focus on cost, but what I see in pediatrics is that children aren't getting the care they need and deserve because there's a cost consciousness that makes insurers think kids can get the same services as adults.  Children are not small adults. 

Take pediatric audiology, for example, with little kids whose brains are developing and sense of hearing that is developing.  Say they've had a cochlear implant, they need very specialized audiology care. Often, insurance companies will direct them to services meant for adults. Providers like us have to jump in and help advocate because patients will not do as well if they don't get specialized audiology care. So that's an example of a barrier created by a system that doesn't understand nuances around children.  I am on a mission to change that.

The same is true for adults - that insurance benefits and provider networks are getting more and more narrow. They eliminate people's ability to go to the providers they may need to see as experts in the field. I think everyone should have access to care that's going to give them the best outcome.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

CS: I'm not creative in any way, no arts and crafts abilities at all, but I love people. I love being around people that I know, including family and friends, and I love meeting new people. I'm a social butterfly, and if you put me in a networking event or some kind of party or wedding or anything like that, I'm in my element. I absolutely love meeting new people, hearing their stories, and figuring out why they do what they do. I'm always asking questions. The nickname that my neighbor gave me growing up was Lois Lane because I used to ask a million questions…and still do!

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

CS: I spend time with my husband. He is my rock. He keeps me grounded but he's also really funny and he keeps me laughing, especially since the environment in a hospital can sometimes get heavy. We spend time together, play tennis, get together with friends and family, and then sometimes we'll take a day and go have an adventure. We'll drive to a new part of town, go to a new restaurant or have a type of food we've never had before. The South Florida community is great for that because there's so much diversity.

Beyond that, I'd say I also love to spend time alone. I love to read and give myself time to think. I am high energy so a little downtime is good for me. I also love to shop for good bargains. It has to be a good deal!

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

CS: Well, I've been very fortunate to have a lot of great influencers and mentors in my personal life and career, so I've had lots of great advice. One that often pops up in my life goes back to when my parents took me to college. They brought me to school, set me up in my dorm room and we cried and hugged and then they left. I remember going back into my dorm room and I couldn't believe it was real. There was a card on my bed. I opened it up and it was a drawing of a little girl walking down a dirt road and inside the card it said, "Don't look back. Keep your eyes on the road ahead."

I've had the good fortune of having amazing job experiences early in my life. I ran the autism center at UCLA and helped researchers and clinicians secure some of the first funding available from the National Institutes for Health to study autism. I went on to work as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, travelling around the country and seeing health systems in different states. I just remember thinking that I shouldn't look back because it's all building up to something. Going on to the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, I worked with amazing people to offer services to children in that market, and I kept my eyes forward because I knew it was all taking me somewhere. I went back to UCLA as a senior level administrator before I was recruited to Joe DiMaggio, and I finally I feel like I'm home here. It was all building up to this point. Always look forward, every experience building toward something bigger, has been my philosophy. That card always pops into my mind. I think my parents left me great advice.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Joe DiMaggio so far?

CS: I'm proud of being able to engage with the outstanding team here and continue to build on the unique patient experience they have created. This is a really fun environment and I think having fun at work, especially in a children's hospital, is important for the kids and staff. We've done some really fun stuff here already - made some cool videos for social media with the kids and staff. I'm enjoying connecting with staff at the ground level, so they know I'm a pediatrics person – we all chose this field for a reason and I am one of them. Now I'm learning the market a bit more and refining new directions we need to go in strategically, thinking about how we can form partnerships, how we can build a better system of care, and how we can integrate innovation into what we're doing already.  I am just getting started.

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