By Holly Fisher
As a teenager, Lorraine Lutton volunteered with her mother as a candy striper at a hospital in her hometown of Huntington, W.Va. One of her jobs was transporting patients to another floor for therapy appointments. To Lutton, it seemed inefficient and she wondered why the therapists didn’t come to the patients. Even then, she was attuned to how hospitals could improve processes and the patient experience.
Fast forward to the University of North Carolina where Lutton decided to merge her desire to work in health care with her interest in business. A MBA from the University of California followed by a career in hospital administration seemed the perfect fit.
Determining the best way for the many departments of a hospital to work together has been a keen focus for Lutton throughout her career and now as the president and CEO of Roper St. Francis.
Before taking the helm as the first female CEO of the 150-year-old not-for-profit health care system, Lutton spent 24 years with BayCare Health System in central Florida, eventually rising to president of the system’s St. Joseph Hospital in Tampa.
When the opening at Roper became available, a recruiter reached out to Lutton with “the perfect job.” Two of Lutton’s three children were grown, and her youngest son was about to be a high school senior. It was a good time to look around, Lutton said.
She didn’t know a lot about the Charleston community, but she did know Roper had a great reputation for high-quality care.
“Through the interview process, I became more and more interested in the job,” she said.
Last fall, Lutton, with her son and husband – a former chief operating officer at a hospice organization – settled into the Holy City. Since then, Lutton’s calendar has been packed with meetings as she gets to know as much as possible about the hospital system and her new community.
“I’m getting oriented as fast as I can.”
She’s meeting with each service line and department to learn the infrastructure and people. It’s sort of a mini SWOT analysis, helping her get a sense of which areas or processes could be improved.
While becoming acclimated to Roper, Lutton also has been meeting local business leaders from the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, and other professional groups.
Plus, she’s met with her counterparts at Charleston’s other hospitals. “We have a lot more in common than we have differences,” she said.
She recognizes, though, that the Lowcountry’s leaders won’t always agree on everything.
For the last several years, Roper St. Francis and Trident Health both had plans to build a hospital in Berkeley County. Trident attempted to block Roper’s effort, arguing the county could not support two full-service hospitals. Courts ruled both hospitals could expand into Berkeley County. Roper is about to begin construction on a medical office building scheduled for completion in the summer or fall of 2018. Plans are to begin construction on the Roper St. Francis Berkeley Hospital in fall 2017 with an opening date two years later.
Lutton said she’s excited about the Berkeley County hospital and what it means for the community. “People there are anxious for additional health care options,” she said.
In a region with such a large health care industry, there’s a fine line between competition and collaboration. But in a truly unique collaborative effort, Roper is working with the Medical University of South Carolina, Trident Health and East Cooper Medical Center to share information among emergency departments in a program called AccessHealth.
If a patient received a test at one ER and then goes to another ER the following week, doctors will be able to access those records and avoid duplicating costly medical procedures. It’s useful, too, for monitoring anyone who might visit various ERs to access prescription narcotics.
“This is innovative. Not a lot of other communities are doing this,” Lutton said.
Last fall, Roper and MUSC also announced an advanced stroke care team partnership that allows both health care systems to share resources, clinical expertise and technology.
These sort of efficient, cost-saving mechanisms are critical in a state like South Carolina where health care is vulnerable. South Carolina is one of a few states to resist Medicaid expansion for more low-income individuals as part of the Affordable Care Act. This means less Medicaid funding for hospitals and more people using emergency rooms for their primary care.
This is an issue that impacts the local business community as costs are passed along to insurance companies, which then pass the costs along to their commercial customers. This is why employers see their premiums rise each year, Lutton said.
Lutton plans to be involved in health care advocacy and working with public officials to build relationships and create a dialogue about health care in the state.
“We all want access to health care, immunizations, and for people to be treated with respect and dignity,” Lutton said.