'It's about how we rebuild our workforce': Lou Baverso on guiding UPMC's growth

Lou Baverso has had a front-row seat to growth that has occurred since Pittsburgh-based UPMC acquired Harrisburg, Pa.-based PinnacleHealth System in 2017. Five years later, as he takes the helm of UPMC's Central Pennsylvania region, he said he is focused on harnessing that growth and rebuilding the workforce pipeline. 

Mr. Baverso became president of UPMC Central Pa. in July, and his role currently overlaps with that of Phil Guarneschelli, who will retire Sept. 30.  

As president, Mr. Baverso oversees seven full-service hospitals in the region as well as outpatient facilities and physician offices. He is also responsible for a workforce that has jumped from 11,000 a few years ago to more than 13,000 today. 

Previously, Mr. Baverso was COO of UPMC Central Pa. and president of UPMC Harrisburg, UPMC West Shore and UPMC Community Osteopathic.

He shared his top priorities as president, discussed what it was like to serve as a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic and offered advice for his peers.

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

Question: You succeed Phil Guarneschelli, who is retiring after more than 36 years working in the region. What's top of mind for you early on in this transition?  

Lou Baverso: My focus is to rebuild the workforce pipeline. We have a lot of great opportunities with partners in this region to encourage folks to a healthcare career, to encourage those that want to be nurses to go to nursing school. We created a branch campus here of our Pittsburgh-based UPMC Shadyside School of Nursing. We've also worked with our local community college, Harrisburg (Pa.) Area Community College, on programs like pharmacy technicians. The pandemic has been difficult on healthcare workers across every discipline. For us, it's about how we rebuild our workforce pipeline here in central Pennsylvania. 

Q: You became COO of UPMC in central Pennsylvania in October 2020. What was it like stepping into that role during the height of the pandemic? 

LB: It was challenging. There's no doubt about that. Most of everything we did was on a virtual call. But it was also beneficial because it gave us the opportunity to partner closely with our western Pennsylvania colleagues, as we kind of worked through various challenges that the pandemic brought. It also gave me a great opportunity to get to know some of the newer leaders. I've known them for the time that I've been here in Central Pa., but now, more from a direct reporting perspective, it gave me the opportunity to truly connect with them personally and professionally, and work through some challenging times. That's one of the benefits. The pandemic distanced us in some ways and brought us all closer together in others.

Q: Five years have passed since the region's hospitals, outpatient facilities and physician offices joined UPMC. What is your model for this healthcare system moving forward?

LB: We've been transitioning and are on stable grounds. We are focused on each of the communities that we're in. And we're focused in two ways. One, obviously, is our brick-and-mortar hospitals, and the way in which we're caring for the community. We're extremely thankful for the staff that we have here in Central Pa. who have really weathered the storm with us. There's also an opportunity to grow from an ambulatory perspective. You mentioned the physician offices and outpatient locations that have come over with us. We've also had great growth over the last couple of years in terms of the number of new providers that we've grown in the region. And we brought new services to the region. It has given us the opportunity to truly strengthen the clinical offering. And so, for me, it's about harnessing that growth, and continuing to put in each of these communities the services that they need. And that's been the ongoing model that we have had for the last five years as well.

Q: When do you get into a flow state? 

LB: I learn something new every day. I also build upon the things that I learned in the past. And so, for me, it's a constant state of flow. And I think for most leaders, we kind of grow and learn as we continue to move through whatever challenges present, but we build on what we had in our past. I learned from every mistake that I made, and from the people around me, that I watch or observe or interact with daily.

Q: What's your greatest worry about healthcare right now?

LB: Our people. Our healthcare heroes, pre-pandemic, were tired, no doubt about it. There's just not enough of us. Post-pandemic, I think there's even fewer of us. I think the pandemic has certainly forced folks to choose sometimes a different career path or retire early. And we did not replace folks at the same time. And so, for us at UPMC, here in Central Pa., what we have seen is a demand for services. We need to be able to respond to our staff and take care of our people. And that's been at the top of mind for me for quite some time. We are committed to these communities. We are dedicated to the people that are in these communities, and we need to make sure that we have the right staff to take care of the community.

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to other hospital leaders, what would it be?

LB: We just completed an employee engagement survey this spring, and we had a 93 percent participation rate, which is unheard of. And I was a little nervous about what that might look like with 93 percent of the workforce giving feedback. And we had an 83 percent-plus engagement index. And so, what I think I've learned the most out of this survey is our front-line staff connect so deeply with their supervisors. Empowering our supervisors and managers and directors to be able to take care of these folks is so key. And I may have taken that for granted before. But having seen the results of this survey and the feedback that we were given, and how well people spoke about their one up, it was an eye-opening moment for me.

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