“The key turning point in my life was the death of my 8-year-old son, Nicky, to a brain tumor. His suffering brought me to my knees, literally and figuratively.” -Steve Ronstrom
Article Interview by Kristen Ross
Steve Ronstrom is president of the Hospital Sisters Health System, Wisconsin, Western Division, and also serves as CEO of Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., one of the system’s hospitals. Even with the demands of running a hospital, his Catholic faith continues to play an integral role in his personal and professional life. At Sacred Heart, Mr. Ronstrom fosters the belief that every person is a treasure, every life is a sacred gift and every human being is a union of body, mind and spirit. A native of Duluth, Minn., Mr. Ronstrom is married, with two children. In the following Catholic Business Journal interview, Mr. Ronstrom reveals on how his faith anchors him as a leader in the healthcare industry.
Q: How did your faith-based background influence and prepare you for your position as a leader in a Catholic health system?
A: My religious upbringing has always provided the foundation for my decisions, including my education choices. I completed a master’s in Hospital Administration from St. Louis University, a Jesuit school, and an undergraduate from the College of St. Scholastica, a Benedictine university. Prior to Sacred Heart, I held roles at three other healthcare systems, all of which were religiously based. These experiences have helped shape and secure my thought and my ongoing commitment to a faith-based career. For me, it’s important to believe in what you do. One reason why I joined Sacred Heart in 1998 as CEO is because I believe in our mission.
Growing up across the street from a convent, some of my earliest memories are of the special kindness and generosity of the religious sisters. They would come to our house when apples or strawberries were harvested. (Always a step ahead of us, I believe they shared their harvest with us to keep the kids from getting into the apple orchard or the berry patch!) We knew that the sisters’ lives were dedicated to the Holy Spirit. I always felt, even at a young age, there was something good to learn from the Catholic sisters. They had something important to share, and we were interested to learn what that was.
The key turning point in my life was the death of my 8-year-old son, Nicky, to a brain tumor. His suffering brought me to my knees, literally and figuratively. Again, this time it was the Franciscan sisters who brought me and my family to trust in God’s grace and the significance of life beyond human comprehension. I now know this was my first experience with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Knowing we can carry on the Hospital Sisters’ Franciscan tradition each and every day is very satisfying. For example, taking care of the environment has always been a focus of the Franciscan philosophy. Last year, Sacred Heart Hospital was one of only six hospitals nationwide to be awarded the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Leadership Award. This year, we received another award from the same group. These awards recognize our innovative programs that set industry standards for waste reduction and pollution prevention. We received these awards two years in a row because of our continuing commitment and decision to be good stewards of the environment.
Q: Why is Sacred Heart Hospital’s mission important to you?
A: Our hospital’s mission – our purpose for existing – is to continue the Hospital Sisters’ apostolic mission to serve the sick, aged, poor and terminally ill in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. That tradition combines with the contemporary example of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her words, “There is Hope Here,” are engraved on our hospital’s front doors. It’s a pledge carried out by our entire team – from volunteers to physicians.
Sacred Heart’s healing mission combines 21st century medical innovations and technology – some of the most advanced in the world – with a Franciscan healing tradition. Some call this “high tech meets high touch.” This combination allows us to offer hope in big and small ways for all we serve in the western Wisconsin region. We want the patient experience to be transformational – to heal the sick not only in body, but in mind and spirit.
Q: What challenges have you faced as a hospital CEO, and how has your faith impacted these issues?
A: The healthcare industry faces numerous hurdles today, most of which relate to financial issues such as spiraling costs and increases in uninsured patient care. Providing quality patient care is the primary concern at Sacred Heart, but fiscal responsibility is also important. While we elevate our level of care to meet the needs of our patients, we work hard to keep costs as low as possible. We continually design more efficient processes and work with our medical staff to identify effective and more economical resources and supplies.
Another challenge is our mission to serve those without insurance or the ability to pay. Although it’s an increasing burden on the budget, we remain committed to our mission. As a Catholic, not-for-profit hospital, we remember that while the bottom-line financials are vital, we have a greater purpose. We uphold the values of the Hospital Sisters to serve God by serving our patients. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “To the extent that you did it (meaning helped someone) to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”
Q: As a Catholic healthcare leader, how do you encourage all employees to live Sacred Heart Hospital’s mission?
A: The key is proper training of everyone in our organization and clear accountability by management to consistently meet people’s needs each day. When you are at Sacred Heart, there is a feeling of peace – a special feeling of caring and of love. I make it a goal to foster an environment where everyone is helpful and friendly so that Sacred Heart is a safe, comfortable place.
We make it a point to greet patients and visitors and always ask if they need anything. A defining expectation in every individual employee’s job description is “delight your patients, customers and co-workers,” and we reinforce our values of respect, care, competence and joy. These values are so important they are printed on every employee’s ID tag for continuous encouragement. As a reminder of how seriously Sacred Heart takes its commitment to its mission, vision and values of the Hospital Sisters, all employees sign an individual personal commitment to Service Excellence.
We have developed a management accountability and empowerment system. We utilize metrics, just-in-time training, best practice networking and good communication, especially by listening and being present to those we serve. We’ve worked closely with one of healthcare’s best innovators, Quint Studer, for more than 10 years and are an alpha testing site for healthcare performance improvement systems. Recently, we were recognized by the state of Wisconsin with the highest level of the Wisconsin Forward Award. This award was the result of significant work under Malcolm Baldrige Award principles.
Q: What are some of the unique ways Sacred Heart Hospital lives its mission as a patient-focused system?
A: We look at the needs of the patient and then we do everything possible to meet those needs. Sacred Heart is the largest provider of care to the uninsured in our region. Last year we spent $5.2 million treating the uninsured and gave $9.2 million to care for patients who were unable to pay for care. Yet, beyond financial assistance, we focus on healing for the mind, body and spirit.
For instance, Sacred Heart offers free palliative care services dedicated to patients with life-limiting illnesses, and it is the only program of its kind serving western Wisconsin. We believe that everyone should spend their last days in comfort, with dignity, in a setting that allows family and friends to be near. In addition, we devote an entire floor of our hospital to inpatient behavioral health, a service with traditionally low reimbursement.
As for the body, Sacred Heart provides the best care possible, striving to obtain the most advanced technology. One of our newest technological advancements is the Smart OR™ – one of only six like it in the United States used for surgery and diagnostics – to equip our neurosurgeons with advanced capabilities to perform complex brain, spine and trauma procedures more effectively. Such technology reduces human suffering, improves patient safety, helps speed healing and reduces costs. However, the latest technology is only as good as the people using it, so another one of our priorities is to attract and retain top talent. We recruit from all over the world to ensure we have the best doctors and clinicians.
When it comes to spirit, Sacred Heart supports the teaching and beliefs of the Church. We promote prayer and hold daily Mass – offered twice a day – as well as employ chaplains for free counseling services. Pastoral care for our patients and their families remains at the center of Sacred Heart’s ministry. For instance, patients awaiting surgery receive a pastoral visit prior to their procedures to provide emotional comfort and spiritual solace. We also developed a prayer book to help patients find spiritual strength and support. Something else we offer is RISEN (Re-Investing Spirituality & Ethics in our Networks), an intensive personal/spiritual practicum retreat, to all employees who want to attend. To date we’ve had more than 115 people complete the 40 hours of learning and self-reflection designed to discover and integrate spirituality as a resource for personal and professional growth.
Q: How does your faith-based mission impact those beyond the walls of the hospital?
A: Sacred Heart exemplifies its Franciscan mission by connecting with the community. We reach out to our community by sponsoring programs that inform residents about ways to live healthier. Plus, at our Healing Place: Center for Life’s Journeys, we have expanded our free counseling services to include issues related to job loss and military deployment. We also have a benchmarking program in which we share best practices with other healthcare leaders from all over the United States.
Another way we honor our Franciscan tradition is by donating to a local food pantry and to a local animal ranch. Each year, we give more than 8,000 pounds of leftover food to the St. Francis Food Pantry to help feed people in need. In addition, since 2008, we’ve provided more than 25,000 pounds of scrap produce to be used for animal food. Not only does this feed the animals, but the scrap donation reduces our hospital’s costs for sewage solids, sewer assessment and solid disposal waste removal.
Beyond our community, Sacred Heart also makes a difference globally. We donate used equipment to Third World countries as another way to serve the underserved. Through the Hospital Sisters’ Mission Outreach, Sacred Heart has distributed more than 8,400 medical equipment items to needy hospitals and clinics throughout the world – including beds, wheelchairs, exam lights, walkers, medical carts and various other necessities.
Q: What advice would you give to those considering a career in hospital administration?
A: I would encourage them to pursue it. I’ve found it to be a unique way to use God-given talents for the good of others. That’s the most satisfying purpose of all, especially when you work in an organization with a mission that matches your beliefs.
Q. How can someone reach Steve?
A. Editor responds: If you have comments or questions for Steve, please email [email protected], include the subject line: “Steve Ronstrom.”
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