by Jon W. Sparks
Debbie Eddlestone was given the challenge during her employment interview: “We have to make some hard choices that we have to see through,” the interviewer said, “and we’re seeing the rocks at the bottom of the pond. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. And that set the course for the future of Stern Cardiovascular Foundation.
As a CEO in one of the largest medical research areas in the country, Eddlestone came to the company in the late 1990s to overhaul the business operation. She became CEO of the organization in 2010, guiding it through a period of growth and change.
Eddlestone built that road to CEO by making the hard changes Stern needed back then. Computer systems were being developed to handle billing and electronic medical records, a field that was evolving and full of uncertainty. But she stayed on top of the technology as well as making changes in personnel and systems, balancing the needs of both physicians and administrators. “Both teams were behind me and it was a huge challenge,” she says. “I worked more hours in my life than I ever thought I would, but it got to me. The group just took my heart — the patients we see, the commitment from the doctors, the commitment from the community is more than I could ever ask for. It’s tough, but it’s very rewarding.”
The key to running a successful operation like this — a cutting-edge research and treatment center — is having both the clinical and administrative segments working seamlessly together.
The president of Stern Cardiovascular Foundation is Dr. Steven Gubin, a cardiologist who focuses on preventative cardiology and patient education. He and Eddlestone have a dyadic relationship, each tending to their areas and making sure everything meshes.
“Dr. Gubin is instrumental in looking at the clinical needs and aspects so that we’re not going into an area that wouldn’t be good for the community or for the Stern physicians,” Eddlestone says. “We make decisions together administratively and we communicate very well.”
It’s especially critical these days as the healthcare industry is facing almost certain changes with the Affordable Care Act.
“The two of us help get the information out to our physicians and staff because everybody makes a difference, everybody,” she says. “The more understanding and the more education that everybody can get, the better. I have a very good administrative team but the clinical aspect that Dr. Gubin brings to the forefront is very important.”
Eddlestone cites the example of electronic medical records, a revolution in the industry, but not one easily incorporated. “We have doctors from age 34 to 80,” she says. “The doctors who were older had been practicing on paper for 30 and 40 years and all of the sudden you want them to walk in the examining room and just look at the patient and a computer screen. It was a huge challenge but we successfully did it with Stern as one of the first to really adopt full electronic medical records.”
Stern has been doing it since 2000 and was able to implement it and keep current because everyone was on board. “We educated and informed all of the staff, not just the clinical people, not just the doctors and nurses, everybody,” Eddlestone says. “Everybody played the part in helping and assisting that physicians learned how to be electronic.”
For Eddlestone, that philosophy of including everyone as a group is to show that Stern believes every employee has value. “A big piece of why you’re here is because of the patient, and you want to make a difference in somebody’s life. I would say that for most of the people that work at Stern, that’s the motivation for them.”
She has also overseen changes that Stern has made in efforts to help patients as well as the community. Several years ago, for example, Stern partnered with the Sutherland Clinic and Cardiology Associates to create a catheterization lab for outpatient procedures that were being done at hospitals. “We were competitors but we all came together for that and it’s been very successful,” Eddlestone says. “It was good for the patients, it made sense, and it kept healthcare costs down.”
Stern has also done some moving around to meet the needs of patients. “We did a big move from downtown Memphis out to the East, building our own building and consolidating offices we had Downtown, in Baptist Hospital, around Baptist Hospital, in the East Memphis area, and also in the St. Francis Hospital area.”
But it was also important strategically to go into underserved areas, so Stern built an office in DeSoto County and has since opened outreach offices around the Mid-South. “We have locations in more rural areas where physicians go maybe once a week or even once a month,” Eddlestone says.
One of the most important things she’s learned as a CEO is perspective. “Everybody comes with the idea that we think we have the best ideas,” she says. “But I’ve learned to really listen and seek to understand. There are many different ways to get something done and most times, there are better ideas than what you have. I’ve learned a lot from our doctors but I also learn a lot from the people on the front desk and the lady you meet every day because she’s around the clinic and sees things. I’m a much better listener now and I think that is what has helped me be a better leader.”
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