August 1, 2011 | last updated April 18, 2012 6:44 pm

Q&A with Erik Wexler, Saint Vincent Hospital

Photo/Christina H. Davis
Photo/Christina H. Davis
Erik Wexler, President & CEO, Saint Vincent Hospital

VIEW: Erik Wexler, who took over as CEO of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester on July 5, describes what he likes most about his job.

Erik Wexler joins Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester as its new president and CEO during a critical time. Saint Vincent, like all hospitals, is dealing with incredible pressures to control costs while still providing high-quality care. The hospital is fresh off a near strike from its nurses and is planning an ambitious new cancer center to be part of Worcester's downtown revitalization project, CitySquare. Wexler — whose first day on the job was July 5 — comes to Worcester from serving as president of Northwest Hospital in Baltimore, which was part of the nonprofit system LifeBridge Health. Here, Wexler talks about how he ended up in the health care field as well as what it's like to work for a hospital that's part of a for-profit company.

How did a guy with a degree in sociology end up in hospital administration?

While I was getting my MBA, I worked for the University of Hartford in their fundraising office. When I completed my MBA, I continued on with the university and I ascended to director of the department. I had worked there for eight years and I got a call one day from a recruiter about an executive position as vice president for development and community relations at Waterbury Hospital in Connecticut. I aggressively pursued that job and got it. My career in health care went on from there.

While you've worked in health care for quite some time, this is your first experience working for a for-profit health care company like Vanguard, which owns Saint Vincent. Have you noticed any differences between the nonprofit and for-profit health care models?

I think I'm going to find that the differences are fairly small. One of the reasons that I chose Vanguard is that it's not just a bottom-line oriented organization. Vanguard, and Saint Vincent Hospital in particular, have their focus equally distributed between clinical quality, the patient experience, employee engagement, outreach into the community and of course financial results. That's really no different than what I experienced when I was at LifeBridge. I think that we're finding more and more that the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit are narrowing. That's probably good because it's forcing the not-for-profit systems to be more accountable for the efficiencies and the quality that they provide.

What's on your to-do list?

The first thing is to get to know the staff and leaders within the community. I think any new leader is going to want to understand the history and the opportunities that the hospital will have in the future. I'm reading a lot about what has happened here and I'm trying to understand more of the needs of our medical staff and the community.

What do you see as the major challenge to the health care industry?

I think national health care reform, for which Massachusetts is well ahead of the rest of the country, is of the utmost importance because we've got to find a way to control costs so they doesn't spiral to the point where we can't afford it anymore. I believe a piece of that is the responsibilities of the providers, physicians and hospitals alike. But I also hope that we, as individuals, will accept a certain amount of responsibility for our own well being. That means not living a sedentary lifestyle, being careful about what we eat, exercising regularly and taking responsibility for preventative care.

Why is the proposed cancer center at CitySquare a smart move for Saint Vincent Hospital?

It's a smart move not only for this hospital but also for the community. There are hundreds and hundreds of people that live in the area that turn to us for cancer care. The way our service is organized now, it's provided in multiple locations. That's not the most convenient way to deliver care and it also doesn't allow our clinicians to interact regularly when they're developing care plans for their patients. I also believe, and I know Vanguard does as well, that when we provide care to our patients, it should be in an appropriate, comfortable setting. Part of care is not just the nurses and doctors that you interact with, but it's the space that you give care in. Right now some of our patients that are getting radiation therapy are getting care in an older, less comfortable environment than what we plan for in the CitySquare development.

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What attracted you to this particular position?

The complexity and the scope of services that Saint Vincent's offers was an immediate attraction. The rich history that this institution has - more than 100 years of commitment to the community - also made me feel that this would be a place where I would like to work. But what really sold me was meeting the people here: the executive staff, the medical staff and the board of directors. They all have a very clear commitment to ensuring that we provide top quality care to our community and to our patients.

Do you see similarities or differences between a cities like Baltimore and Worcester?

One of the similarities that I'm very pleased about is that people who grow up in Baltimore and grow up in Worcester seem to stay. They may go off to college, but they come back. That to me is a very, very positive sign. It shows true dedication to where one grew up and then hopefully a commitment to the success of the community.

Are there any major differences between the Massachusetts and Maryland health care systems?

The health care systems between Massachusetts and Maryland are strikingly different in that Maryland is a regulated system. It's actually the only state in the country that has a waiver from the federal government. What that means is Maryland gets to decide what the federal government will pay through Medicare for health services. The reason Maryland has that waiver is that it's part of a 30-year experiment to see whether a state that has very strong regulatory powers can keep the cost of care down compared to the rest of the country. Maryland has had some success with that. Massachusetts is more of a free-market system.

What's it like for you, as a non-medical professional, to head a hospital? Do you have to work a little harder to get respect from the staff?

I don't find it difficult because I trust the people around me to make good decisions and to educate me about what I need to know so that we can drive the organization in the right direction. And it's a two-way street. There are people in the medical field who don't have strong business backgrounds. Over the years, I've learned a lot, but I find there isn't a day that goes by that I don't learn something new.

What's the toughest management lesson you've had to learn?

I think the toughest lesson I've had to learn is that there are times when we have to make very difficult decisions that impact the people around us. At those times it is essential that we lend compassion and kindness and that we understand we as leaders have not only an impact on the paper that we sign or the letters that we write, but even more importantly, on the people that count on us.

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