East Orange General acquisition gives CEO Paige Dworak a landmark role: Her insights

East Orange (N.J.) General Hospital announced in October it plans to be acquired by for-profit EOH Acquisition Group, which would make CEO Paige Dworak the first female-owner CEO of a New Jersey hospital.

Ms. Dworak has been the CEO of the 201-bed hospital since 2017 and will have a 20 percent ownership stake.

Through the acquisition, EOH Acquisition Group and East Orange General plan to make several improvements to its care, focusing specifically on behavioral health.

The deal is pending approval from the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health.

Ms. Dworak shared with Becker's the hospital's plans for the deal and how she persevered in a male-dominated industry.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: What benefits will come from being acquired by EOH Acquisition Group?

Paige Dworak: East Orange General Hospital is a vital community asset to our region. The change in ownership will help accelerate the transformation of the hospital, ensuring it continues its mission to provide high-quality care to the residents of East Orange and the surrounding greater Newark communities. Most importantly, we will go back to being an independent community hospital. Being locally owned and operated gives us the ability to be nimble and act quickly to ensure we are serving the true needs of our community.

Q: What will be the financial priorities of the hospital after the acquisition?

PD: The hospital's financial priorities will be focused on growth, specifically investments in new programs and services. We are first and foremost an acute care hospital. To that end, we plan to expand our primary care services and our surgical services to support our core mission. In addition, we are deepening our focus on behavioral health.

Q: What led to the decision to focus on behavioral health through the deal?

PD: There is a significant unmet need for behavioral health services, not only locally, but across New Jersey and the nation. While this need was always there, it was further fueled by the pandemic. We find there are not enough services to meet the increased demand, and the patients and the communities we serve have nowhere to go. My partner, Ben Klein, owns more than three dozen behavioral health and substance abuse treatment centers across the United States. He is personally invested in this work — and I believe his subject-matter expertise and conviction will allow us to better serve our patients and fulfill a vital need in our community.

Q: What changes will the hospital make when it comes to behavioral health?

PD: We are making significant changes to enhance our behavioral health services, including the opening of Essex County's first inpatient substance use disorder (detox) unit, creating a 200-plus bed residential drug and alcohol rehab treatment center, as well as making other investments in services we do not currently offer today. We plan to increase staff and reconstruct real estate to create the facilities and services necessary to support this work.

Q: This deal makes you the first female-owner CEO of a New Jersey hospital. What obstacles did you have to overcome to achieve this?

PD: My life has certainly not been without obstacles. I was a single, teenage mom from Edison, N.J. Even having my first daughter at a very young age, I was determined to make it through college, and then immediately went back to school to earn my master's degree. I knew early on that I wanted to make an impact and do something meaningful in my life. In truth, my beautiful daughter fueled my conviction and determination to achieve success, for us! 

My journey took me to hospital administration and I just fell in love with the position. As a leader of an organization, you have the unique opportunity to create a culture and to lead a staff and do the absolute best work for your patients. But I was a young female in a predominantly male industry and position, so that required me to work longer and harder than everyone else. I had to spend a great deal of time away from home, giving up nights and weekends to make it happen. My girls had to sacrifice, too, to allow me to be where I am today. We like to think we did it together.

Q: Where did you draw support from?

PD: I draw support from my closest friends, especially my friends who work in the healthcare industry who understand the challenges we face and have provided me so much guidance and support along the way. I would also say my daughters. I have two girls, ages 15 and 21, and there is no one who has been more supportive than them throughout my entire career. They had to be patient and understanding of my work and obligations, and they are so proud of all that I have achieved. I could not be where I am today without their love, encouragement and support.

Q: What advice would you like to share with another CEO, hospital or health system and why?

PD: There are two pieces of advice that I believe are important to share. First, I really believe there should never be an "Ivory Tower." It's important for every leader to understand that they are no more important than their front-line staff. Without every single person in your organization, you don't have an organization and won't be able to deliver whatever good or service you provide. It takes everyone — together. Second, we need to remember to reach back and pay it forward. People helped get us where we are today through networking and relationships, and we have a responsibility to pay that forward, and to make sure we are mentoring and guiding the next generation of leaders.

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