Corner Office: St. Tammany CEO Joan Coffman on navigating change and leading with integrity

Joan Coffman, president and CEO of St. Tammany Health System in Covington, La., said she has faced challenges such as Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have helped shape her leadership skills and improved her ability to deal with change.

Ms. Coffman joined St. Tammany in 2018, after serving as president and CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System in Decatur, Ill.  She also previously was president and CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she served as assistant administrator of New Orleans-based Lindy Boggs Medical Center, which closed because of flood damage from the hurricane. She also helmed the Louisiana Clinic, a multispecialty physician clinic in New Orleans. 

Here, Ms. Coffman answers Becker's Hospital Review's seven Corner Office questions.

Editor's Note: Responses have been lightly edited.

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

Joan Coffman: Those who serve in healthcare frequently feel called to serve. My daddy was an entrepreneur and small family business owner, and my mother was a nurse at a local medical practice. I often visited her and became very intrigued by the physicians, clinicians and support staff working together to care for patients and collaborating with local business leaders to improve the quality of life in our community.

My healthcare career began at St. Tammany Parish Hospital as a radiologic technologist and has truly come full circle. Through the years I transitioned into management and led hospitals in Wisconsin and Illinois before coming back home in 2018 to join our hospital family. I have found the perpetual change that is the nature of healthcare to be challenging, rewarding and inspiring. Our patients look to us to lead innovations in healthcare and provide high quality services — every patient, every touch, every time. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Louisiana?

JC: In so many ways, the Northshore, with Covington at the center, is really its own region. Country living layered with New Orleans' diverse characteristics offers the best of both worlds with our food, music and art rooted in Louisiana culture. We recognize that our little corner of Louisiana is special, and we try to honor that small-town history by treating our patients like family. As the service district for western St. Tammany Parish, we have created a destination center of excellence, and patients from a broad radius encompassing St. Tammany, Washington, Tangipahoa and western Florida parishes, the south shore, and even Mississippi, often choose us for their healthcare needs. 

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

JC: My father and two of his brothers owned a True Value Hardware in Metairie, La., where I worked summers in high school. Their active efforts to serve their customers in a genuine and positive way  —  leading with integrity — was an important lesson that has remained with me throughout my career. Many years later when the store closed, my daddy received a letter from a customer that ended with the following statement, "There are places to go for what you sold, but none for what you gave away." Extraordinary service and positive relationships add value in any industry — particularly healthcare. That is a profound responsibility, and one I am grateful to be a part of and live out each day.

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

JC: An issue that I am passionate about is increasing access to quality healthcare, particularly in my home state of Louisiana. Louisiana has ranked near the bottom of U.S. rankings in resident health metrics including disease rates, obesity, childhood poverty, smoking and violent crime, which are all factors in determining which states are the healthiest. It is an ambitious goal, but addressing the most critical health needs of our population through preventive care and early intervention would improve the quality of life for many of our residents. 

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

JC: A skill I have learned over time is the ability to deal with change, although this was not always my strongest attribute. Dealing with the challenges of Hurricane Katrina, subsequently closing a hospital due to extensive flood damage and leaving the great state of Louisiana to explore new career opportunities was a huge adjustment. But the experience was life-changing and helped shape the leadership skills I carry with me today. There are many things in life we cannot control, so I've learned to let go and focus my energy on how I respond. Active listening is a big part of this tool kit. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

JC: The pandemic has brought more emphasis on the little things in life and what I have missed the most this past year. I enjoy my time at home, either spending time with family, relaxing outdoors, or even reading a book. I also find great peace looking out my kitchen window and watching our two Tennessee Walkers grazing in the pasture, as it brings a sense of calm even after the most hectic day. The way I revitalize is by focusing on the present and embracing quiet moments of well-being.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at St. Tammany?

JC: One of the most memorable experiences in my healthcare career is the one I am living and witnessing right now — our health system's response to COVID-19. As this pandemic continues to ebb and flow, our outstanding caregivers have responded time and again, and it has made them even stronger as our leaders and colleagues work through each situation together. No one could have anticipated what has transpired this past year, and we are grateful to have skilled team members who feel called to this work. What makes me proudest is leading this caring, dedicated and courageous team.


More articles on leadership and management:
Senate confirms Dr. Rachel Levine as HHS assistant health secretary
Kevin Duvall named HHS acting chief data officer
Corner Office: Saint Alphonsus Health System CEO Odette Bolano on the importance of taking calculated risks 

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