The corner office: The Catholic Health Association's Sister Carol Keehan on having the courage to question

Few healthcare professionals have played such a key role in the tremendous change that has touched every facet of the healthcare industry as Sister Carol Keehan.

Sister Keehan is the ninth president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Health Association of the United States, the largest group of nonprofit healthcare providers in the nation. In this role, which she has held since Oct. 2005, Sister Keehan is responsible for all association operations, both at its St. Louis and Washington, D.C., offices. CHA is comprised of more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.Sister Carol Keehan

Sister Keehan has worked in administrative and governance positions at hospitals sponsored by the Daughters of Charity for more than 35 years. She began her career as a nurse and has a breadth of leadership experience, including influential roles in governance of a variety of healthcare, insurance and educational organizations. Prior to joining CHA, Sister Keehan served as board chair of Ascension Health's Sacred Heart Health System in Pensacola, Fla. Before that, she served for 15 years as president and CEO of Providence Hospital, which includes Carroll Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Washington, D.C.

She previously served as a representative to the International Federation of Catholic Health Care Associations of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care, and on the boards of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, CHA, Catholic Health Partners in Cincinnati, St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, and several other hospitals and healthcare organizations.

Sister Keehan, who earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing from St. Joseph's College in Emmitsburg, Md., and a master of science degree in business administration from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, has watched medicine evolve and new policies rise. She has demonstrated unwavering commitment to the mission of providing healthcare to everyone in need, and has been a steadfast advocate of the Affordable Care Act, despite staunch opposition from the U.S. bishops. She worked closely with President Barack Obama on his signature reform law and, due to her support, received one of the president's 21 pens used to sign the bill.

Here, Sister Keehan took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

What's one thing that really piques your interest in healthcare?

What compels me most is the delivery system and finding ways to make it possible for everyone to get great and affordable healthcare — to get more people into the delivery system without barriers at a quality level. What really piques my interest are advances in technology and science. To watch the changes in healthcare over the course of my career — as well as the treatment modalities we've improved and the things we've been able to eliminate — is just incredible. It's always wonderful to see something new come out because you've seen what's happened to people who have that problem.

For instance, when people had cataracts, they only had cataract surgery when they were in really bad shape. After the surgery, it was so important that you didn't move when you were sleeping that people put sandbags at either side of their head. Now when you come in for the procedure, you walk in, walk out and just get some eyedrops. There are no real restrictions. And you have incredibly better outcomes today compared to in the past.

Similarly, when I was younger, if someone had their gallbladder taken out, the surgeon made a huge incision that crossed over numerous muscles. The patient needed tube draining for about a week, and they stayed in the hospital for six to eight days. They felt miserable the whole time because even breathing affected the incision. It took forever to feel like yourself again and make sure you wouldn't hurt the area. Now when people get their gallbladder removed, they get just three little slits, the surgery is done robotically and they can go home the next day or even the same day.

What do you enjoy most about Washington, D.C.?

I would have to say it's the excitement of being at the nerve center of the world. At the same time, it's about being around a lot of people who are incredibly caring, competent and truly committed to what they're doing.

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

The barriers to healthcare would be the biggest thing I would choose. And while there will always be complexity in clinical treatment, we've made the financing and delivery of care so incredibly complex and expensive that we waste way too much money on the financial systems and the delivery systems. If we could simplify those, we'd have a lot more money for delivering clinical care.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

Taking action on the mission of a hospital, and helping employees at all levels feel part of the organization and use their talents effectively. I taught Japanese healthcare providers for 30 years in Japan, the U.S. and in Europe. At the time I was vice president of nursing. I advised them on a number of things, including nurse issues and management, general hospital administration, risk management, special programs on building cohesive teams and communicating with the entire organization — many of the skills that go into running a hospital.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I have a lot of friends who take good care of me. I love to go on walks and read. Recently I've read The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin. It's an incredible book about how we're disorganized in our minds and suboptimizing our competence and potential through some of our bad habits, such as multitasking. I also love reading mysteries.

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

The piece of advice that resonates with me the most is from the saint who founded the Daughters of Charity, St. Vincent DePaul. One of his oft repeated sayings is "Kindness is the key to the heart." You really see that in Pope Francis right now and how he attracts people.

The piece of advice I value most and remember most clearly regarding management is one I received years ago when I was a young sister. It was from a very successful businessman. He said, "Your best loss is your first loss." So often in business we try to make things last way longer than we should. We don't allow people to be honest about what's not working until it becomes an utter catastrophe, and people had been thinking it was a catastrophe for the last nine months before anyone said it out loud.

It's important to create an environment where people have the courage to ask, "Are we are putting good money after bad? Should we move on?" It's easy to talk about but harder to do, especially when you feel like your reputation is vested with the decisions.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Catholic Health Association so far?

Working with our members and working with the administration and Congress to get the ACA passed, keep it passed and get it implemented.

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