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Making Mission a Medical Mindset

February 13, 2014

Alex Jackson comes full circle with return to Inland Northwest

Kim Crompton | Journal of BusinessAlex Jackson, chief executive of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital and Providence Holy Family Hospital, expects “a year of tremendous change.” CLICK for a larger image. (Photo by Kim Crompton, Spokane Journal of Business.)

Former Montana resident Alex Jackson had little interest in leaving his position as a Providence hospital system executive in Portland in late 2011 when Spokane colleague Elaine Couture began trying to entice him into applying for a position here that she had vacated.

Now, he says, he’s glad he did.

Last spring, he became chief executive of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital and Providence Holy Family Hospital here, and he says his settling-in period in that new post has convinced him it was a good move.

“I think it’s been a great eight months,” Jackson says. “The people here in Spokane are great. The medical staff are outstanding. The physicians are really committed to improving performance. I have integrated into the Providence community well.”

He adds that 2014 is going to be “a year of tremendous change, probably the greatest amount of change in at least the last 25 to 30 years” in the health care industry, but the two Providence hospitals here “have a strong group of people” who he believes will be up to the challenge.

Sacred Heart is one of Spokane County’s largest employers, and the two hospitals together employ a full-time equivalent of more than 3,600 people and have more than 1,000 doctors on staff. Last year, combined, they handled more than 37,000 inpatient admissions and generated net patient revenues of about $838 million, based on preliminary data.

Sacred Heart, licensed for 644 beds, and Holy Family, licensed for 197 beds, have current operating budgets of about $755 million and $183 million, respectively. They’re part of Providence Health Care, the Inland Northwest’s largest health care system.

In addition to the hospitals, that nonprofit Catholic-sponsored network includes nine other hospitals and organizations, which altogether employ more than 7,000 people. Providence Medical Group, the physician division of Providence Health Care, includes a couple of hundred primary-care, specialty-care, and hospital-based providers serving patients throughout the region.

Holy Family currently is putting the final touches on a $9.5 million expansion and remodel of the maternity center at its North Side campus, while Sacred Heart is evaluating a possible $9.7 million expansion of its cardiac intensive care unit at its campus on the lower South Hill. Meanwhile, Providence Medical Group is wrapping up work on a $58 million medical park project in Spokane Valley that will expand the Providence network’s outpatient services greatly there. That facility is scheduled to open for patient care on April 28.

Providence Health Care is part of Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services, a Sisters of Providence-sponsored nonprofit ministry that’s among the largest health care systems in the country, employing more than 64,000 people across five states.

Couture became the top executive for Providence Health Care here in late 2012, succeeding Michael Wilson, who retired after having been an executive with Providence’s Spokane hospitals for 31 years. In evaluating who might succeed her as top executive over Sacred Heart and Holy Family, she says she pursued Jackson—with the help of a Providence executive recruiter—because of his strong mix of leadership skills.

She’d gotten to know him through regional gatherings of Providence executives, and says, “He’s just dynamic. I thought to myself, I really would like to partner with someone who has a good sense of humor, is bright, and can really get things done. I was really impressed with his capabilities and thought this would be a good fit for him.”

She adds, “It was really important for me to get someone in who was mission minded. That was my No. 1 focus.”

Jackson, who is in his early 40s, appears to fit that qualification quite well.

“Health care is the ultimate ministry, because we have the chance to serve,” he says of what led him to a career in that field. “Health care is all about trying to help people. Hospitals tend to people’s physical needs, but we also tend to their personal and spiritual needs.”

“We have the privilege to serve people on the best day of their life,” such as when a child is born, Jackson says, “and we also have the privilege to care for people on the darkest day of their life,” such as when a loved one dies, and must be “good stewards” in those roles.

Jackson had been working as chief operating officer at the 523-bed Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland for seven years when approached about the opening here. He had been involved with Providence hospitals in Oregon for more than 15 years, overseeing the integration of services among several hospitals in the Portland area.

He was born in Seattle, but raised mostly in Montana, where his father—now retired—worked as a forestry economics professor at the University of Montana, in Missoula. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from Indiana University, in Bloomington, followed by a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, and served an administrative fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.

“I was attracted to Indiana University just to do something different,” such as to pursue studies in journalism, political science, or business, he says. However, he became intrigued by how the health care industry and policymaking intersect, and says he realized there are “multiple ways of making positive change.”

Describing his experience at the Cleveland Clinic as “phenomenal,” he says, “I had some great opportunities to stay there, but my Western roots were calling me. I wanted to get back out West,” which led him eventually to join the Providence network in Oregon.

In September 2012, he says he participated in a week-long public health mission trip to Guatemala, sponsored by Providence Health International and Medical Teams International, during which he labored with a team to install cooking stoves in the tiny homes of impoverished residents of an isolated, rural village of 400 people.

“It was a perspective-changing week of my life that I’m never forget,” he says, adding, “I saw the importance of family … and a spirit of thankfulness like I’ve never seen in my life.”

After being informed of the Spokane job opening by the executive recruiter, Jackson contacted Couture to discuss the position, and she invited him to come to Spokane to evaluate the facilities and the administrative team, which he did.

“I think once I talked to Elaine I became more interested and intrigued by the opportunity,” she says.

It offered “a chance to do something different and serve at a high level,” and to “go from kind of being a No. 2 to a No. 1,” Jackson says. He adds, “I like the larger hospitals like Holy Family and Sacred Heart, because I like that complexity, the challenge, the size, the number of people, the depth and breadth of the medical staff.”

Rising up the administrative ladder “comes with more pressure, more demands, but also a greater ability to implement change,” he says.

Also, he says, “I am Catholic and have some appreciation for the Catholic sponsorship, so our core values (at the Spokane hospitals) really match up with my personal values.”

A key factor in his decision, though, Jackson says, was making sure his wife, Courtney, and sons, Owen, 10, and Ryan, 8, would be comfortable with the move, and making sure he was ready to give up his involvement in the Portland community.

Now settled in here, he comes across as team-oriented and uncomfortable being the focus of media attention.

“It’s never about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we,”’ he says.

Discussing his routine, Jackson says, “I remind myself on the way to work that I’m coming to a very special place. We’re caring for human beings.”

He’s implemented what he calls a daily safety huddle, and says he’s focused on ensuring that the hospitals provide the best possible overall experience for patients and offer the highest quality of care at the lowest cost.

Not happy being tethered to a desk, he says he’s pursuing those goals partly by spending plenty of time engaging with front-line employees and with patients.

“I love interacting with people,” he says, “and in my role I have the opportunity to interact with physicians, with administrators, with leaders, and front-line care givers. I love that. It’s our job to help remove barriers so they can do a better job serving patients, and I can’t do that by sitting in my office all day.”

The Providence network describes its mission as revealing God’s love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through compassionate service.

Of his personal goal as the top executive overseeing Sacred Heart and Holy Family, Jackson says, “I want our mission to be stronger the day I walk out than the day I walked in, and that’s a tall order.”

Reposted with permission of the Spokane Journal of Business. Original story at www.spokanejournal.com/local-news/making-mission-a-medical-mindset.