Dignity Health's chief administrative officer on why she gives back

A "master of multitasking," Elizabeth Shih manages to juggle numerous roles inside and outside the office.

Since 2001, she has served as executive vice president and chief administrative officer of San Francisco-based Dignity Health, one of the largest health systems in the U.S. and the largest provider in California by hospital number. Ms. Shih has more than 28 years of experience in system integration and operations. She is also an active donor to both the Community Health Partnership Fund and the Alzheimer's Association.Elizabeth Shih 224 copy

Here, she spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about her current role, her morning routine and why she raised $15,000 for the Walk to End Alzheimer's.

Question: What is one of your daily routines?

Elizabeth Shih: One personal routine I do every morning, even when I'm traveling, is get up at 5:30 a.m. and by 6:15 a.m. I'm in the fitness center. I'm on the treadmill for one hour and five minutes and not one minute more.

It makes a huge difference in my day. I have to make it into a personal daily routine.

When you're a chief administrative officer, you're there to help people in all different levels of the company. People stop by my office frequently. As a professional routine when I come to work, the first thing I do is look at my calendar and see how much available time I have for folks when they stop in. In actual practice, I make the time even if I don’t have it.

Q: What are the biggest challenges and the biggest benefits of holding the CAO role?

ES: As the CAO, I'm responsible for the governance of [Dignity Health] and overall project management of large-scale initiatives for the system. I'm the special assistant to the president and CEO, and I also support the COO. I have oversight of hospital construction, corporate real estate and leases, security and safety management and the project management office.

Separately from that, you can think of me as a general contractor. I have my regular duties and then what I love about my job is that I'm also asked to work on special assignments. For example, in 2012, we changed our name and governance structure, which included a major brand change. The chief strategy officer asked if I'd help lead the transition including notifying vendors and patients, hospital licensing, insurance companies, and changing the branding of everything from stationary to hospital signage.

People think I am a supreme master of multitasking. The fun part is that I draw from people around the company who are looking for the opportunity to do something on a larger scale and scope. At the same time, I always learn something from them. I try to identify the people who are going to be leaders of the future. The best way to do something is to surround yourself with smart, energetic, motivated people.

Q: You financially support the Community Health Partnership Fund. Could you discuss your decision to do so?

ES: In a company as large as ours with a mission like ours, we allocate funds to certain projects. We have an incredible employee giving program in which employees are encouraged to give directly or through a payroll deduction to specific projects.

[The Community Health Partnership Fund] is one I support because it brings workshops to areas where certain resources are not available because the people there are underserved. One example is a workshop that helps patients effectively manage their chronic diseases. Sometimes when you donate, you're not sure if it makes a difference. With this program, they let me know what my dollars do. Once I know that I can make a difference, it's hard to stop supporting. Last year, the program did close to 150 workshops for over 1,000 people. It's very gratifying. I've been contributing for about 10 years.

I'm also very involved externally with the Alzheimer's Association. I started my involvement in 2012. It's a personal philanthropy choice; I'm a caregiver to my wonderful husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. After his diagnosis, we wanted to get involved in a support group — but there was a waiting list. I thought that was unconscionable. I gave money so that the Alzheimer's Association could bring on additional facilitators and get everybody off the waiting list to ensure they could have services immediately.

I continue to support the organization, and my donation goes toward something for which funds have not been budgeted. There's always things that are wonderful but that they just don't have the resources to do. I thought, "I cannot let another couple go through that experience."

This year [the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada] invited me to join the board. In addition, I put together a team for this year's Walk to End Alzheimer's. My first thought was, "I don't do stuff like that." Then I thought I could get about 10 friends and family members to join the team. We ended up getting 35 people on our team. As far as raising money, I thought I could hit my team members up, but then they started helping me raise funds. I raised $15,000 for the walk, an amount I never thought I would reach (my initial goal was $5,000!). We actually took my husband with us to the walk, and his terrific caregivers volunteered on their own time to come.

It's amazing — you have your work influences, and then your personal experiences drive you to do things and make a difference. This year, I'm supporting the Alzheimer's Association through raising money to give caregivers a break from caregiving through respite care. Having gone through what I don't think anyone else should ever have to go through, the compassion and kindness of others is invaluable.

Q: What news story or event in healthcare have you been most interested in this past month?

ES: It'd have to be the election — what's going to happen in healthcare and what that means to Dignity Health, our patients and our communities. The foundation for [Dignity Health] is the underserved. While health policy continues to change, we have a long history of keeping those who are poor and underserved at the forefront of what we do now and into the future.

For me personally, we have to be relentless in advocating for the right thing to do. A lot of times people think, "I'm just one person. How can I make a difference?" One person can make a difference; but if a lot of people get together, we can make an even bigger one.

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