'Even the tough days are a learning opportunity': Woman's Hospital CEO Teri Fontenot on her 23-year tenure

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Teri Fontenot, president and CEO of Baton Rouge, La.-based Woman's Hospital, announced her retirement plans last month. She has served as leader of the independent, nonprofit 168-bed hospital for 23 years and will retire in the summer.

Opened in 1968, the hospital was one of the women's specialty hospitals in the U.S. Today, it's medical staff performs around 7,607 surgeries and 8,097 births as well as 45,402-plus breast procedures annually.

Here, Ms. Fontenot looks back at her time leading the hospital, lessons learned and the biggest changes in healthcare today.

Responses are lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment as CEO of Woman's Hospital?

Teri Fontenot: I was a CEO for 23 years. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to serve that long. The one [accomplishment] that really stands out is the work Woman's did following the flooding after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Woman's was pleased to be able to the responder and coordinator for evacuating 122 infants who were in neonatal intensive care units at five hospitals that were flooded in New Orleans. It took us almost a week to get those babies to Woman's by helicopter, by boat, by ground ambulance, and then because cell phone towers were down and families had been evacuated to other states, it took another week or two to reconnect those babies in some cases with their families.

Our team, our medical staff, everyone worked so well together. The work that was done — it was just amazing.

Q: What is one leadership lesson that has stuck with you over the course of your tenure?

TF: Shared decision making and a collaborative approach have made the decision-making process better. I'm a strong believer in transparency and inclusion.

The other thing, maybe as important if not more so, is we believe that employees are our greatest asset, and if we take good care of our employees — by offering competitive pay and benefits, by providing adequate training, excellent equipment and enough staff resources —then they take great care of our patients.

Q: What is one thing you wish you had known when you became leader of the hospital?

TF: I guess the one thing that I didn't realize is how rewarding it would be. Now that I'm in the twilight of my career, [one thing I would tell myself] would be to cherish every day a little bit more. Even the tough days are a learning opportunity.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in healthcare since you stepped into the top post at Woman’s Hospital and how did you ensure the hospital weathered those changes successfully?

TF: For Woman's, we're an independent, nonprofit, specialty hospital and so we're unique just by virtue of our legal structure and our scope of services. So the thing that we visited many times is whether or not we can remain that way and if it's in our long-term best interest. And consistently, because of the support we have from our community and from our medical staff and our patients, we've continued to be kind of an aberration. We're unique.

There have been a lot of things that have happened over the years, particularly in healthcare, such as mergers, consolidation, and we have done some things to address the challenges, but we've also still been able to remain independent, and it's something we continue to see as our strategic strength.

Going forward, the things that I see on the horizon are continuing to develop strategic partnerships without full mergers and consolidation, and the whole digital transformation. There is disruption coming from that, not just for us but for the healthcare field, and it really requiring healthcare leaders to think very differently and innovatively about how to reach consumers and remove barriers to access.

One of things I've really appreciated is the support of healthcare leaders nationally, regarding their willingness to share best practices and lessons learned. I find that healthcare CEOs are very open to providing advice and counsel, which makes all of us and our organizations able to perform better for the patients we serve.

Q: What do you hope to see in the women's healthcare arena in the next five to 10 years?

TF: I would love to see the mortality rate improve. The rate of maternal and infant mortality in the U.S. is high compared to the rest of the world. Our mission is to improve the health of women and infants; that's what we focus on every day, to make sure the outcomes for moms and babies are as good as they possibly can be.

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