By Susan Elise Campbell
Saratoga Hospital brought on a new CEO last fall, Jill Johnson VanKuren, who with the end of her first year approaching has expressed her goal to “protect the integrity of the hospital while advancing the future needs of the community.”
VanKuren left her position as COO of MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore to accept her first CEO role.
“I was looking for an opportunity more in line with a traditional community hospital,” she said. “Here in Saratoga, there is one hospital in the county and people live, work and play in the same area, so staff are truly committed to the community.”
Although Saratoga Hospital has been affiliated with Albany Medical Center since 2017, VanKuren said it is “right at the beginning of the journey” of joining forces with the Capital District’s top hospital system.
“I had been with MedStar since its early inception and helped facilitate its progress of becoming a larger system,” she said. “The relationship with Albany Medical Center and Saratoga Hospital forming as a system was a unique opportunity for me.”
One of the things Van Karen brings to the table as a leader is experience in successfully integrating hospitals like Saratoga Hospital, she said. “The way you do that is by focusing on the benefits of the system.”
It can be difficult for a community hospital to blend into a system while still feeling like “its culture and its commitment to the local community are preserved and its identity stays intact,” she said. “Integrating into the larger system while keeping the integrity of the community hospital is about maintaining the spirit of how we do things. Saratoga stands for family orientation and kindness and going above and beyond to make people feel welcomed and cared for.”
VanKuren said affiliation is not acquisition, but some have the mistaken impression that the hospital was purchased by or merged into Albany Med. Saratoga Hospital remains independent while benefiting from affiliation with a system having vast resources.
How the public perceives the change is “one of the hospital’s struggles,” she said. “A community hospital cannot provide everything to everyone. What does change is the availability of services, a common EMR to share information, more seamless collaboration across multiple hospitals, lower costs, and negotiation power on contracts.”
The hospital’s biggest challenge today is staffing, which VanKuren said is not unique to Saratoga.
“Every hospital is struggling,” she said. “Urgent care centers in other areas are closing to preserve staff.”
The root problem is rising costs.
“When labor or supply costs go up, we cannot increase our prices,” said VanKuren. “The health care industry cannot do what other businesses do and pass on our rising labor and supply costs to consumers because revenue is set by Medicare, Medicaid and the private insurers.”
She said paying higher wages without the ability to generate more revenue is a particular problem in New York state.
Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, more practitioners may have retired over the past three years. But VanKuren said those who were planning to retire “hung on during the pandemic until things stabilized. Nobody gets into health care for the money. They do it for the service.”
People who want to go into the nursing profession are finding there are not enough seats in the classrooms to enroll into nursing school. The interest is there, but nursing programs have been shrinking, she said.
“We need to open up more access in the school systems to train more physicians, more nurses, more laboratory technicians,” she said.
They will be needed to serve an influx of retirees who will consume more health care in years ahead. Saratoga county is one of the few counties in the state that continues to grow.
“We need to look at how we are going to meet the needs of a growing and aging population,” she said. “Folks moving to Saratoga are active and they want to age successfully. Our seniors need to be supported through the aging process and have access to preventative care as well as acute care when they become ill.”
Thus, the hospital’s strategic planning over the next few years addresses how to develop a Center for Successful Aging in Saratoga, she said.
VanKuren would like to shift focus from building an ambulatory care center off Myrtle Street—which has been stuck in the approval process with the city for several years—to a Center for Successful Aging. The operation would cohort all the supportive services for that population. She said she would like to see it coming together in five years.
“The community has always expected Saratoga Hospital to be a high quality organization,” she said. It has delivered, with four-star ratings from Medicare and Medicare, a Leapfrog Hospital A-ranking, and recognition as an ANCC Magnet Hospital, a high-level designation for nursing excellence, according to VanKuren.
“We are proud of these awards. They show the community that they come with a high level of service,” said VanKuren. “And with that comes our culture, and those things don’t go away because that is who we are. The affiliation with Albany Med further gives us access to more than we could ever provide on our own.”
With the pandemic “in recession,” VanKuren said more people are coming into the hospital for maintenance care that they put off during the many months of isolation.
“Now that people are getting their screening tests or annual visits to their primary care provider, we find they are sicker than expected,” she said. “We’re also dealing with people with long-term effects of COVID and these are also new challenges for us, in addition to the standard care we provide.”
VanKuren said she would like the community to know the hospital appreciates the support through the pandemic.