Buried Blessings: Pandemic perspective from Tom Strauss, CEO at Sisters of Charity Health System

Thomas J. Strauss grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a steelworker, from whom he learned the value of hard work while also working in the steel mills while attending college. After earning his undergraduate degree in pharmacy, followed by a PharmD, Tom started his career at Allegheny General Hospital. Tom quickly moved up the ladder at AGH, becoming the assistant director of pharmacy. With that experience, he started the first home infusion pharmacy in Pittsburgh with American Hospital Supply Organization, and after three mergers and four name changes, he was the vice president of Caremark for the central United States. Fast-forward a couple decades, Tom spent time in executive leadership roles, including at Meridia Health System as it merged into the Cleveland Clinic and Summa Health. Then, Tom tried to retire. He didn’t want to play golf though, so he called a few friends from around the country who had also run health systems to create a consulting company together. This distinguished group soon formed the CEO Advisory Network. After several successful years, Tom found himself working on a strategy project near his home in Cleveland, excited about creating a network of independent hospitals in Cleveland with value-based contracting. He got a call about CEO position . . . and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Tom is president & CEO of the Sisters of Charity Health System, which is the corporate parent of two Catholic hospitals, two elder care facilities, three grant making foundations addressing the root causes of poverty, and six health and human service outreach organizations in Ohio and South Carolina.

With the hospitals serving a high Medicare/Medicaid population (roughly 75%) and the first COVID-positive inpatient in the state, Tom knew right away that the COVID-19 pandemic had the power to do great harm in his community.  Tom reflects with HPI on the critical steps his team took in response as well as the proud moments and enduring blessings that have occurred as a result.

COVID-19 Response

When Tom came to the Sisters of Charity Health System in 2017, he told the Sisters he would do three things:  improve health care operations, explore potential affiliations and set a course for the collective vison of the health system into the future. Never expecting a pandemic when he laid out this plan, these objectives remained relevant as he led the health system’s response efforts.

  1. Mobilize command centers in both hospitals.
  2. Listen to employees and overcommunicate .
  3. Ensure consistent inventory of personal protection equipment for employees.
  4. Ensure patients were safe, and felt safe, as they engaged in health services.
  5. Increase the number of ICU or monitored beds to scale (200-1,000) if/when needed.
  6. Create negative pressure rooms, shutting down part of ORs for COVID patient treatment.
  7. Increase deployment of telehealth services to be able to deliver 75% of visit volume virtually, especially increasing access for vulnerable populations.
  8. Collaborate with the Sisters of Charity Foundations to support other nonprofits specifically addressing the social determinants of health.
  9. Work closely with the performance management office to balance productivity, volumes, and staffing levels, balancing bottom line of hospital with safety features needed.
  10. Bring back furloughed hospital employees as volumes increase, communicating with them often.

Blessings

Tom pauses here, almost digesting the whirlwind of detail he had just shared. Engaging in conversation again, he begins to share why he feels called to make a difference during this time and how the Catholic Sisters who founded the health system remain the inspiration for that to this day.  

He shared that long before the American workplace widely accepted women in professional roles, the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine were directing major health care institutions, teaching in schools and developing new programs to provide needed human services. The first Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in America served as the first public health nurses in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1851, they began an enduring legacy of responsive ministry, creative stewardship and an ongoing quest for social justice that lives on today.

Tom went on to share a few moments he’s been especially proud to be part of the Sister of Charity Health System family of ministries throughout the pandemic.  These ministries make a tremendous impact on our community.

  1. When frontline caregivers were struggling to even find time to go to the grocery store, we set up a program where they could come to the hospital cafeteria and receive groceries to take home for their family.
  2. Deployment of telehealth services, including for mental health services, as an additional pandemic response.
  3. Empowering young African American men in Cleveland by engaging and teaching them how to garden and sell their produce to the hospital.
  4. Working with Early Childhood Resource Center, which is dedicated to increasing access to quality early childhood education. The ECRC was a critical support to early childhood education providers as they prepared to reopen classrooms.

And the work doesn’t stop there.  Part of this will continuing to support the community-wide effort in Cuyahoga County to end chronic homelessness in Cleveland by the end of 2020.  This community-wide effort includes  13  permanent supportive housing units that provide health services including behavioral health and social work.  Next is a plan to heal and unite, confronting racism and health equity in the area.

 

Looking ahead

While he’s proud that less than 10 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 70% of employees have said they feel safe at work with the equipment they need, Tom is focused on what he can fix next.

The consistent point of failure throughout the pandemic, and remains today, is adequate testing to support our patients and employees. We have the test, we have the kit, and the equipment but we can’t get the reagents that are needed to run the tests. We’re trying to test every patient that comes into the ED and every person that’s going into surgery, forced to send tests out which takes longer to result. We need to fix this issue nationally to truly get in front of the pandemic.  

And what about outside of the pandemic?

There’s a lot of disruption coming into the market. The goal is to decrease the use of hospitals to decrease the total cost of care. Walmart and Amazon are looking at health care as an option. There will always be a place for hospitals but they’re going to become more and more highly acute. Of course, there will be further enhancement of telehealth and the movement to value-based contracting, where we start to take risk as a health system versus the old days of fee for service. I see more payers willing to work with us to decrease that cost of care and improve quality.

Words of Wisdom

Bringing our conversation full circle, we asked Tom what’s next for him and what words of wisdom he may have for the developing health care executive.

Find an organization that you love. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I’ve been in health care 45 years and I’m still as passionate today as I’ve ever been.

Whenever he decides to hang up his hat at Sister of Charity Health System, Tom plans to continue this sentiment with the group he co-founded in 2014, CEO Advisory Network, today ranked by Modern Healthcare as one of the top 10 private consulting firms nationally. As an advisor to CEOs, he will continue to explore ways to create change and take serious dollars out of the total cost of care in hospitals nationally. Partnering with industry colleagues to deliver results and improvements, the CEO Advisory Network offers everything from strategy work, to cost optimization improvements, to placing interim leaders. Through this work, we can clearly see that Tom Strauss isn’t done profoundly impacting health care.

Tom Strauss

Tom Strauss

Chief Executive Officer, Sisters of Charity

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