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Close-up: Chris Van Gorder

Scripps Health flourishing after difficult times

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While most San Diegans were manning the grill over Memorial Day weekend, Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder had more pressing things to do. He spent the day on Cuayamaca Mountain, searching for three lost hikers as part of the San Diego County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Unit.

A trained Emergency Room Technician, as well as a reserve commander of the Search and Rescue team, Van Gorder finds such hands-on volunteer work very rewarding. "It keeps you humble, you learn a lot by being in the field and not just sitting in a corporate office," he says.

When he's not aiding lost hikers, Van Gorder presides over Scripps Health, now a flourishing $1.7 billion corporation, which he has guided through a phenomenal financial turnaround. The not-for-profit, integrated health care delivery system now boasts five acute-care hospital campuses, home health care services and 13 outpatient clinics -- with more than 2,600 affiliated physicians treating more than 500,000 patients annually.

Chris Van Gorder

A risk-taker by nature, Van Gorder took the helm of Scripps in 2000. At the time, the organization was hemorrhaging money -- $21 million in 2001 alone -- and in dire need of help. To makes matters worse, patient numbers were on the decrease, the medical staff had no confidence in management and employee morale was at an all time low.

"It was all very daunting," Van Gorder recalls. "We had votes of no confidence from staff and our relationships with the community and employees were very strained. There was a lot to do. I was nervous and excited, but it was a wonderful opportunity."

Since he took charge, Scripps has emerged as one of this country's health care leaders. He attributes this dramatic turnaround to several factors, among them a participatory management style. Soon after he arrived, a physician leadership cabinet was formed to improve physician relations and streamline business operations. It proved to be a resounding success, incorporating physicians into the decision making process and ultimately bridging a growing gap between management and medical personnel. "I'm now extremely proud of our physician relationships. Our cabinet meets each month, and we work together for the betterment of our community and our patients."

Van Gorder says he is also thrilled with the surge in employee morale -- no small feat, as the organization now has 11,600 employees. In fact, Scripps was ranked 56th among Fortune Magazine's top 100 employers in 2008. "We have created a lifecycle of benefits that change according to needs, and even have a phased retirement so people can semi-retire, and still work part time."

Other employee perks, he says, include pet insurance, tuition reimbursement and flexible benefits. By paying close attention, he says, "we meet the many needs of employees and invest in them. The hospital is not about the bricks and mortar -- it's about the people."

The ability to attract new workers is key, as an increase in staff is certainly on the horizon, given the organization's ambitious plans for growth. More than $150 million was spent on capital improvements last year alone, and Scripps Health is in the midst of a $2.2 billion growth and expansion plan, with its latest acquisition of Sharp Mission Park Medical Centers, a group of North County medical offices. As part of the deal, 430 employees will join Scripps. The transfer also involves 64 physicians who practice family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.

According to Van Gorder, the move enables Scripps to steadily expand its market share, especially in the burgeoning North County area. "We are growing to the north, and Sharp is more focused on central and south San Diego, so this move made a lot of sense geographically and strategically."

In addition, a new medical center was recently completed in Carlsbad, the Scripps Clinic building in Rancho Bernardo should be completed by late summer, and plans are underway for a new critical care building in Encinitas.

While he has proven to be an effective leader in the field, Van Gorder did not set out to be a health care executive. He began his professional life as a police officer, but was injured in the line of duty during a domestic disturbance incident. With serious neck and back injuries, he landed in the hospital for a lengthy stay, and eventually started to work for the facility -- Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital -- that had provided his care. He then received a master's degree in public administration/health services administration from the University of Southern California, and began his climb up the administrative ranks.

Though his health care credentials are impressive, Van Gorder says his background in law enforcement is what truly made him a stronger leader.

"As a police officer you also deal with people in crisis, and have to make quick decisions," he explains. "As a result, you become adept at working with different personalities and emotional states -- and can assess danger, opportunity very quickly. This translates over to what I do, and to the state people are in when dealing with health care issues."

These abilities will certainly serve Van Gorder well in the coming months. Despite its robust growth, Scripps faces some considerable challenges.

"We are going into a very difficult year," Van Gorder says. "The state is in more desperate shape that we thought, and health care is taking the very biggest cut."

Yet he remains bullish about the organization's continued growth: "Our job is to perform, regardless of what comes our way," Van Gorder says matter-of-factly. "We are very predictable. We assess problems, set targets and then achieve them."

As a result, Scripps has "met all of its goals year in and year out -- regardless of the challenges."

Moore is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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