Corner Office: Lakeland Regional CEO Dr. Elaine Thompson on running the nation's busiest ER and keeping up with grandkids

As president and CEO of Lakeland (Fla.) Regional Health, Elaine Thompson, PhD, oversees an 849-bed hospital with an emergency department that sees more annual visits than any other hospital in the nation. During her time at Lakeland, she has instituted performance and efficiency improvements in that department that have drawn interest from healthcare leaders around the world.

Prior to joining Lakeland in 2010, Dr. Thompson served as president at Wynnewood, Pa.-based Lankenau Hospital and previously served as executive vice president and COO at St. Luke's Hospital and Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa.

Dr. Thompson earned her PhD in biomedical science in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Philadelphia-based Drexel University and also holds a master's of science in physical therapy from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Dr. Thompson 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 piqued your interest in healthcare? 

Elaine Thompson: I grew up in a family where helping others was the No. 1 goal you strived for. My older sister became a teacher, so of course I couldn't become a teacher. I looked at how else I could help people in a meaningful way, and I found my love and passion in healthcare. I can't imagine having done anything else.

In my early teens I watched my grandfather, who I was very close with, pass away from colorectal cancer. I was by his bedside during that journey, and having that personal experience during those formative years also played a big role in my decision to enter healthcare.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Lakeland (Fla.)?

ET: I love Lakeland in so many ways. We are the safety net system for Polk County, one of the poorest suburban counties in the country. It feels good to do work that makes a difference for the health of the community, especially with an ED that sees 210,000 visitors per year. The community itself is also really special and that extends to the board of directors. The folks here grew up in the area, and the sense of community on the board is unique.

Lakeland is also a beautiful place to live, work and play. Our weather is fantastic, and I love being outside. I did my undergraduate work as physical therapist, and fitness is really important to me, so being able to jog outside, take tennis lessons or do any other activity is really great.

In my neighborhood you also truly have neighbors. The people are warm and caring and that southern charm makes you feel supported no matter what you do in the community.

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

ET: I believe every American deserves and should be entitled to healthcare. My dream is to ensure people have access to high-quality, evidence-based, appropriate healthcare.

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

ET: My greatest skill is my interest in being a continual learner. I love to learn. I feel it's a responsibility for those of us leading organizations in uncharted territory to learn everything we can, both in a healthcare context and outside of it, to steer these organizations as best we can. It also helps you connect with the team members who make the organization work and bring out the best in them.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

ET: I hang with my grandkids now. I'm at that lucky time in my life when I get to plan journeys to see our little ones. We have three in Virginia and one in Seattle, with another on the way. I would say my greatest revitalization is my family.

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

ET: Our CFO, Evan Jones, who is just an amazing leader, once said to me, "Surround yourself with people of character because character is something you exercise every day." It's a lot easier to exercise character when you're around people who are doing the same. It's really been a blessing to have an executive team and a board that are selfless. They have high character when it comes to doing what's best for the patient and their family. That piece of advice is a beacon for me in terms of who I choose to be on my teams and how we elect our board.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Lakeland?

ET: Looking at it from an outsider's perspective, when I came here, the emergency department was not seen as an asset. We had people sitting in the hallways, boarding in the ED. As someone with a PhD from an engineering based program,  I saw this as one big problem to solve. Our team did incredible work, and for the last three years, 80 percent of people who come into the ED are in inpatient beds or on the way home within three hours, and considering we are the busiest single-site ED in the country, that's something we're very proud of.

From a CEO's perspective, my greatest achievement here would be our financial turnaround. Going from being in the red prior to my arrival to seeing our 4% operating margin now makes me very proud and lets me know I'm doing my job as CEO.

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