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Healthcare executive Ruth Brinkley: 'I'm not retiring'

By | September 29 th,  2017 | KentuckyOne, Modern Healthcare, Ruth Brinkley, Blog, CEO, Top 25 Women in Healthcare | 1 Comments

Photo of Ruth Brinkley

 

One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2017. Furst Group and NuBrick Partners, which comprise the companies of MPI, sponsor the awards.

 

Respected healthcare executive Ruth Brinkley isn’t sure what’s going to happen next in her career, but she says one thing is certain: “I’m not retiring. This is a very exciting time in healthcare and I want to be a part of it!”

 

Weeks after announcing she was stepping down from her post as CEO of the KentuckyOne Health system, Brinkley said she was looking forward to some R&R before she returned to advise new interim chief executive Chuck Neumann for a couple months.

 

“I’m not even thinking about what I’m going to do next,” she says. “I’m taking some time off for a river cruise in Europe. There’s nothing like water to wash over your soul. It’s the first extended time off I’ve had in a long time.”

 

Brinkley says she will take the last quarter of 2017 to think about what she wants to do next in a lengthy career that has seen her go from a segregated, rural small town in Georgia to multiple honors as one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare. But with an eye on the future, she doesn’t have regrets about the KentuckyOne experience as three health systems attempted to merge – St. Joseph Health System, Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare, and the University of Louisville Hospital and James Graham Brown Cancer Center. “The governor did not approve the merger,” Brinkley says. “He didn’t want a state entity being managed by a church organization.”

 

The end result was that St. Joseph and Jewish Hospital merged into KentuckyOne, which operated University Hospital until this year, when university administrators said they wanted to reclaim the reins.

 

“Integrating these organizations into a statewide system was a great vision; it was laudable,” says Brinkley, whose veteran experience was sought after by Catholic
Health Initiatives to navigate a complex deal. “At the end of the day, the university wanted to go in a different direction.”

 

While KentuckyOne is in talks to divest Jewish Hospital and other Louisville assets, Brinkley has some advice for her fellow executives as the industry endures a volatile time.

 

“The environment is going to get tougher,” she says. “We know there are going to be significant changes in healthcare, and I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to exercise care and due diligence as we move forward. We are all moving from volume to value, yet, I don’t believe that anyone has quite figured out the full equation to make that work.”

 

And, despite industry initiatives to improve the numbers of diverse executives in the leadership ranks, she believes the climate also is getting tougher on that front.

 

“I am seeing a retrenchment, unfortunately,” she says. “I think women continue to advance in our industry, but I’m not certain about progress for people of color. I believe some of the advancements were made because organizations felt it was
important to promote diverse executives to address disparities and equity of care. I’m concerned that I’m seeing some erosion in that area.”

 

Corporate life was far from Brinkley’s thoughts growing up in a small Georgia town. A physician would provide yearly immunizations for children, but Brinkley never had a physical until she went off to college. She was raised by her grandmother, a teacher, who decided that Brinkley should become a nurse.

 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I went to college, but I didn’t want to be what anyone told me I had to be,” says Brinkley with a laugh. “So, I rebelled against being a nurse.”

 

In time, she came around. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing at DePaul University and ascended through the ranks. Health systems are increasingly looking to clinicians to lead organizations as well as medical groups, and Brinkley says her background has been a profound asset for her.

 

“I firmly believe that I am a better leader because of my clinical background and experience,” she says. “I believe that the movement from clinical provider to organizational/enterprise leader is best done progressively, adding additional education and experiences along the way.”

 

But the transition isn’t always as easy as some clinicians think it will be, she warns.

 

“For those who truly desire to lead, it can be a challenge to learn the business and operations language and processes. In order to be successful, it is vital that
leaders keep the core business in mind. It is difficult to separate the enterprise from clinical processes and outcomes.”

 

In the same way, she says, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the politics of the day from the healthcare needs of patients.

 

“But I believe in the American spirit. We will figure it out.”

 

 

SIDEBAR: A grandmother's influence looms large

 

Ruth Brinkley’s first and most powerful role model was her grandmother, who raised her from an infant.

 

“She was 4-foot-11 and not even 100 pounds soaking wet. I was 5-foot-6 by the time I was in sixth grade, but I thought she was a giant,” Brinkley says. “I had great respect for her.”

 

In a time when segregation still plagued the South, and when women were sometimes treated with less than respect, Brinkley’s grandmother taught her many leadership lessons, foremost of which was courage.

 

Although she was a teacher, her husband was a farmer. When Brinkley’s grandfather died, her grandmother could have lost the farm – the crop had been planted but the seed and supplies usually weren’t paid back to the store until the harvest came in.

 

“She didn’t know anything about the business side of the farm,” Brinkley remembers. “She had to quickly learn the business and make sure that people didn’t try to take advantage of her because she was a woman. She would say all the time, ‘I may be little, but I’m not dumb.’ ”

 

Other key lessons, Brinkley says, were these:

 

  • Collaboration. “You can’t really accomplish a lot on your own; you have to build teams. She took in a number of other people’s children, but we were all a part of her family.”
  • Use what you have. “Nobody has all the gifts and all the talents, but you learn to use whatever you have and leverage that.”

 

Brinkley took much of the wisdom she learned from her grandmother and turned it into a children’s book called Grandma Said.

 

“She taught me my worth as a woman and as a woman leader,” Brinkley says. “I’m sure there were times when she must have been afraid and alone, but I never saw her flinch.”

 

 

2016 Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare: After a complex merger, Ruth Brinkley works to build a new culture at KentuckyOne Health

By | November 28 th,  2016 | merger, Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare, Modern Healthcare, Ruth Brinkley, Blog, Catholic Health Initiatives, CEO, CHI, diversity, leadership, Louisville | Add A Comment

 

Classic content: One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare for 2016.

 

Mergers and acquisitions are complicated equations when just two organizations are involved. But three? That’s a daunting challenge for anyone. Small wonder that Catholic Health Initiatives turned to a veteran CEO like Ruth Brinkley to choreograph the complicated venture and lead the new KentuckyOne Health system.

 

Brinkley, who revamped the sprawling organization to survive and thrive under reform, says the bumps in the road are beginning to get fewer and farther between. “I’m a big believer in culture and the impact of culture on strategy and on building excellence,” she says. “One of the things we have consciously worked on since the very beginning was to shape a desired culture. I would say we’re 60 to 70 percent of the way there.”

 

KentuckyOne Health is comprised of the former Saint Joseph Health System, the former Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare, and the University of Louisville Hospital and James Graham Brown Cancer Center. It is a complicated arrangement. Catholic Health Initiatives is a majority owner of KentuckyOne. The other owner is Louisville-based Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence. But the individual hospitals that were Jewish hospitals are still Jewish; the Catholic ones are still Catholic; and the university hospital remains secular. The partnership with the university was held up by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who initially challenged a full three-way merger over concern that the public university hospital would be required to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And that, in turn, slowed down the process and the culture work by about a year.

 

Daunting? Absolutely. But Brinkley’s eyes were wide open from the beginning.

 

“I did expect this to be a big job, a big bite, so to speak,” says Brinkley, who left Carondelet Health in Tucson, Ariz., to return to Louisville and CHI. “I believe in the merger, in the vision of what we set out to do. When the days or the issues get tough, I go back to the belief in that vision.”

 

Brinkley had already achieved much in her career as a CEO and a lauded leader in Catholic healthcare for many years. Her resume was full. But the prospect of the merger energized her, moved her geographically closer to her children and grandchildren, and brought her back to her what she calls her extended family at CHI.

 

 

“The real draw was the excitement of the vision for this merger and what it was to accomplish. And it felt familiar. It felt good coming back to CHI. It’s always been a wonderful place to work. You see the mission come alive, and you see the values in people’s hearts.”

 

While the work of the merger more than filled her days, and many of her evenings, it was a temporary diversion from a personal tragedy.

 

“I had experienced a big loss in my life; my husband passed away when I was in Arizona,” she says. “Time is a great healer and work is a great healer, if you use it correctly. But I will also tell you that we all eventually have to pay the debt of grief. I like to say that grief can be delayed, but it won’t be denied. The work gave me something to focus on, but we each have to go back and deal with the issues we need to deal with, and I did that as well.”

 

Brinkley’s career has taken her from rural Georgia, where her grandparents raised her, to urban Chicago as a student and a nursing leader, to a number of other settings. So she is well-versed in the many types of populations that KentuckyOne serves, from Appalachia to Louisville. “The needs are very different across the state,” Brinkley says. “We try our very best to represent and reflect the communities we serve.

 

“We know that healthcare does not begin and end inside the walls of a hospital, so we’ve developed outreach programs to decrease the use of the emergency room for routine care, and to decrease readmissions. We’re starting to focus more on the social determinants of health.”

 

Brinkley says she learned many key lessons on leadership from her grandmother, who encouraged her to become a nurse, as she was growing up in Georgia – in fact, in 2009, she wrote a children’s book called “Grandma Said” to honor the woman who shaped her early life. But in Georgia, Brinkley also saw the sad results of those aforementioned social determinants, as family and friends dealt with suffering brought on by health disparities. Thus, she makes it a key priority to move her organizations upstream into the communities whenever possible.

 

“We know that a hospital only impacts 20 or 25 percent of health status,” she says. “The rest are social determinants. So, for example, at our St. Mary’s facility in west Louisville, we are starting a community garden. It’s a somewhat challenged area with a lot of immigrants. The city is leasing us 4 or 5 acres of land. We are going to engage the community and staff and hopefully be able to help people grow their own vegetables, because we had found through our community health assessment that this was a real need.”

 

Another need that Brinkley has been talking about for a number of years is the push to increase diverse leadership at the highest levels of healthcare organizations. Patients, she says, benefit greatly from diversity.

 

“It’s where our greatest opportunity is to serve the community,” she says. “It’s so important for our patients to have people in leadership who look like them and can relate to them. We have a lot more work to do, but we’ve made a good start at KentuckyOne.

 

“You have to let people know through word and deed that you understand their experience.”
With a wealth of experiences to draw from, Brinkley is trying to do just that.

 

 

After a complex merger, Ruth Brinkley works diligently to build a new culture at KentuckyOne Health

By | June 3 rd,  2016 | merger, Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare, Modern Healthcare, Ruth Brinkley, Blog, Catholic Health Initiatives, CEO, CHI, diversity, leadership, Louisville | Add A Comment

 

One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare for 2016.

 

Mergers and acquisitions are complicated equations when just two organizations are involved. But three? That’s a daunting challenge for anyone. Small wonder that Catholic Health Initiatives turned to a veteran CEO like Ruth Brinkley to choreograph the complicated venture and lead the new KentuckyOne Health system.

 

Brinkley, who revamped the sprawling organization to survive and thrive under reform, says the bumps in the road are beginning to get fewer and farther between. “I’m a big believer in culture and the impact of culture on strategy and on building excellence,” she says. “One of the things we have consciously worked on since the very beginning was to shape a desired culture. I would say we’re 60 to 70 percent of the way there.”

 

KentuckyOne Health is comprised of the former Saint Joseph Health System, the former Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare, and the University of Louisville Hospital and James Graham Brown Cancer Center. It is a complicated arrangement. Catholic Health Initiatives is a majority owner of KentuckyOne. The other owner is Louisville-based Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence. But the individual hospitals that were Jewish hospitals are still Jewish; the Catholic ones are still Catholic; and the university hospital remains secular. The partnership with the university was held up by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who initially challenged a full three-way merger over concern that the public university hospital would be required to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And that, in turn, slowed down the process and the culture work by about a year.

 

Daunting? Absolutely. But Brinkley’s eyes were wide open from the beginning.

 

“I did expect this to be a big job, a big bite, so to speak,” says Brinkley, who left Carondelet Health in Tucson, Ariz., to return to Louisville and CHI. “I believe in the merger, in the vision of what we set out to do. When the days or the issues get tough, I go back to the belief in that vision.”

 

Brinkley had already achieved much in her career as a CEO and a lauded leader in Catholic healthcare for many years. Her resume was full. But the prospect of the merger energized her, moved her geographically closer to her children and grandchildren, and brought her back to her what she calls her extended family at CHI.

 

 

“The real draw was the excitement of the vision for this merger and what it was to accomplish. And it felt familiar. It felt good coming back to CHI. It’s always been a wonderful place to work. You see the mission come alive, and you see the values in people’s hearts.”

 

While the work of the merger more than filled her days, and many of her evenings, it was a temporary diversion from a personal tragedy.

 

“I had experienced a big loss in my life; my husband passed away when I was in Arizona,” she says. “Time is a great healer and work is a great healer, if you use it correctly. But I will also tell you that we all eventually have to pay the debt of grief. I like to say that grief can be delayed, but it won’t be denied. The work gave me something to focus on, but we each have to go back and deal with the issues we need to deal with, and I did that as well.”

 

Brinkley’s career has taken her from rural Georgia, where her grandparents raised her, to urban Chicago as a student and a nursing leader, to a number of other settings. So she is well-versed in the many types of populations that KentuckyOne serves, from Appalachia to Louisville. “The needs are very different across the state,” Brinkley says. “We try our very best to represent and reflect the communities we serve.

 

“We know that healthcare does not begin and end inside the walls of a hospital, so we’ve developed outreach programs to decrease the use of the emergency room for routine care, and to decrease readmissions. We’re starting to focus more on the social determinants of health.”

 

Brinkley says she learned many key lessons on leadership from her grandmother, who encouraged her to become a nurse, as she was growing up in Georgia – in fact, in 2009, she wrote a children’s book called “Grandma Said” to honor the woman who shaped her early life. But in Georgia, Brinkley also saw the sad results of those aforementioned social determinants, as family and friends dealt with suffering brought on by health disparities. Thus, she makes it a key priority to move her organizations upstream into the communities whenever possible.

 

“We know that a hospital only impacts 20 or 25 percent of health status,” she says. “The rest are social determinants. So, for example, at our St. Mary’s facility in west Louisville, we are starting a community garden. It’s a somewhat challenged area with a lot of immigrants. The city is leasing us 4 or 5 acres of land. We are going to engage the community and staff and hopefully be able to help people grow their own vegetables, because we had found through our community health assessment that this was a real need.”

 

Another need that Brinkley has been talking about for a number of years is the push to increase diverse leadership at the highest levels of healthcare organizations. Patients, she says, benefit greatly from diversity.

 

“It’s where our greatest opportunity is to serve the community,” she says. “It’s so important for our patients to have people in leadership who look like them and can relate to them. We have a lot more work to do, but we’ve made a good start at KentuckyOne.

 

“You have to let people know through word and deed that you understand their experience.”
With a wealth of experiences to draw from, Brinkley is trying to do just that.

 

 

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