Self­less lead­er­ship

Lerner’s health­care ca­reer spans four decades

Modern Healthcare - - SPECIAL FEATURE -

Wayne Lerner has a habit of putting his hospi­tal’s com­mu­nity and staff ahead of him­self, no mat­ter where he’s served in a ca­reer that has spanned nearly four decades.

A Chicagoan who grew up on the city’s West Side, Lerner isn’t too far from home at Holy Cross Hospi­tal, where he’s worked as the safety net fa­cil­ity’s pres­i­dent and CEO since 2006. He grew up with Howard Ber­man, a 2012 in­ductee of Mod­ern Health­care’s Health Care Hall of Fame who was the long­time CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s af­fil­i­ate in Rochester, N.Y., and a former Amer­i­can Hospi­tal As­so­ci­a­tion di­rec­tor and group vice pres­i­dent.

While at­tend­ing a wed­ding when Lerner was still an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Cham­paign, Ber­man en­cour­aged Lerner to pur­sue a master’s in hospi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. Lerner was ma­jor­ing in psychology and math.

It rang a bell in the young man. “I had been in man­age­ment since I was kid,” re­calls Lerner, now 63. “I man­aged a drug­store and a Burger King when I was 17. So we talked about hospi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tion, and I went to Michi­gan and in­ter­viewed. I was lucky enough to be ac­cepted.”

Lerner, one of two Amer­i­can Col­lege of Health­care Ex­ec­u­tives Gold Medal Award win­ners this year—the high­est honor given by the or­ga­ni­za­tion—was the first of his fam­ily to grad­u­ate from col­lege. His only con­nec­tion to health­care came tan­gen­tially from his fa­ther, who served as an Army medic in World War II.

While at Ann Ar­bor, Lerner quickly dis­cov­ered the dif­fer­ences be­tween hospi­tal op­er­a­tions and his other man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ences. He says he was drawn to health­care be­cause of the op­por­tu­nity to serve oth­ers. It was there he met Gail War­den, who served as his men­tor and also went through the Univer­sity of Michi­gan master’s pro­gram.

War­den would even­tu­ally be­come the long­time pres­i­dent and CEO of the Henry Ford Health Sys­tem in Detroit. Last year, Lerner be­came chair­man of the Grif­fith Lead­er­ship Cen­ter in Health Man­age­ment & Pol­icy ad­vi­sory board at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan School of Pub­lic Health, a post War­den pre­vi­ously held.

Af­ter earn­ing his master’s, Lerner joined RushPres­by­te­rian St. Luke’s Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Chicago in 1972 and served in a va­ri­ety of roles, in­clud­ing vice pres­i­dent of ad­min­is­tra­tive af­fairs and chair­man of the de­part­ment of health sys­tems man­age­ment. He says he loves his pro­fes­sion, but re­calls it wasn’t such an easy tran­si­tion from un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies.

“The first years I was at Michi­gan, I really thought I was tak­ing Latin,” he says. “I had no con­cept of what was go­ing on.”

Lerner isn’t a stranger to to­day’s cli­mate of hospi­tal merg­ers and con­sol­i­da­tions. He served from 1990 to 1996 as pres­i­dent of the Jewish Hospi­tal of St. Louis. The hospi­tal in 1996 merged with Barnes Hospi­tal in St. Louis to form what even­tu­ally would be­come BJC Health­Care.

A year later, Lerner edited Anatomy of a Merger: BJC Health Sys­tem, which cov­ers de­tails of the trans­ac­tion with the help of sev­eral health­care ex­ec­u­tives who were in­volved in the deal. His aim was to pro­vide ex­ec­u­tives an in­sider’s view of the merger that brought to­gether providers in ur­ban, sub­ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas. Lerner pushed for the deal, which also called for C-suite con­sol­i­da­tion that ul­ti­mately cost Lerner his lead­er­ship po­si­tion.

The cre­ation of BJC left the merger part­ners in a bet­ter po­si­tion to form an in­te­grated de­liv­ery model, which was a boon to the com­mu­nity. Lerner says he knew that it would help the St. Louis met­ro­pol­i­tan area and sup­ported the merger, even if it left him with­out a job.

That’s no sur­prise for Ber­man, who mar­vels at Lerner’s al­tru­ism: “He was will­ing to fall on his own eco­nomic sword if it would ben­e­fit the com­mu­nity,” Ber­man says.

Lerner’s work con­tin­ues at Holy Cross. War­den praises Lerner for steer­ing the pre­vi­ously fi­nan­cially strug­gling hospi­tal on Chicago’s South Side into the black. The fa­cil­ity’s sta­bil­ity was fur­ther bol­stered last month when Si­nai Health Sys­tem in Chicago ac­quired Holy Cross.

Not ev­ery­one with Lerner’s cre­den­tials would want to find them­selves in a high­pres­sure sit­u­a­tion like at Holy Cross, where the CEO faced the re­spon­si­bil­ity of chang­ing the fi­nan­cial for­tunes of an in­nercity hospi­tal with few re­sources. Lerner’s ef­forts at Holy Cross have in­cluded re­cruit­ing a new man­age­ment team and part­ner­ing with lo­cal Catholic of­fi­cials to se­cure ad­di­tional re­sources to im­prove health­care in the neigh­bor­hood.

The value of men­tors such as War­den and other lessons learned through ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t lost on Lerner, who ad­vises ad­min­is­tra­tors of all ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els to be pa­tient and take the time to learn about their com­mu­ni­ties and par­tic­i­pate in lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

“The most im­por­tant thing you can do is walk in their shoes,” Lerner says. “You need to take a breath once in a while and re­al­ize folks within our or­ga­ni­za­tion are work­ing one or two jobs in or­der to sup­port their fam­i­lies. We serve on the be­half of our com­mu­nity, but we’re also re­spon­si­ble for the peo­ple who work in our or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Wayne Lerner

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