Healthcare Business News

2012 ACHE Young Healthcare Executive of the Year: Donald Fesko

Leading a cultural revolution

By Ed Finkel
Posted: February 4, 2012 - 12:01 am ET

As CEO of Community Hospital in Munster, Ind., Donald Fesko has brought about a change in culture that's resulted in rising patient-satisfaction scores and greater teamwork among vice presidents. He's led infrastructure changes such as a new pavilion that houses the emergency department and renovation of three floors to add 75 private rooms. On the technology side, he's presided over the creation of a robotic surgery program.

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Fesko, a former optometrist who spent only one year as chief operating officer of the 427-bed Community Hospital before becoming COO in 2005, has accomplished all of the above and more before the age of 40. The 39-year-old is this year's recipient of the American College of Healthcare Executives' Robert S. Hudgens Memorial Award for Young Healthcare Executive of the Year.

“I just squeaked under the wire,” jokes Fesko, an ACHE fellow. Fesko also was named one of Modern Healthcare's Up & Comers in 2008.

Although he came in and made changes on a variety of fronts, Fesko, a board member from 2000 to 2004 before he became CEO, emphasizes that Community Hospital was no turnaround project. “It was, ‘How do we tweak a very successful operation and make it better?' ” he says.

“A big one has been the culture change,” Fesko says. “I'm a big believer in working together as a team. We've changed out some of our senior leaders along the way.” But the moves have paid off, he says. “We've been able to see that with the continual upward change in patient-satisfaction scores here at the hospital. The vice presidents are working together and not operating in silos, which has filtered through management that we are a team.”

The renovations that created the 75 private rooms cured one nagging problem Community Hospital had faced, Fesko says. “One of the Achilles' heels we've had is the large percentage of semi-private rooms, so we wanted to privatize as many rooms as we could,” he says, adding that the hospital focused first on post-partum and medical-surgical areas.

The hospital has worked to keep up with the latest technology, such as the robotic surgery program, the first in the far northwest corner of Indiana, within the orbit of Chicago. “Where we're located, we compete with the Chicago universities for a lot of cancer care, spine, cardio and orthopedic,” Fesko says. “We have to be able to say we have excellent staff and technology just like you'd find at universities around us and have the outcome data to compare with them.”

Fesko figures his five-year background as an optometrist gives him an added comfort level with those on the medical side—and vice versa. “Having a healthcare background and an understanding of the medical terminology, when people talk about procedures or diagnosis, at least I have a working knowledge. I've read it in textbooks and seen some of that as an eye-care practitioner,” he says. “It gives you a little bit more ability with the medical community to understand what they're talking about.”

As CEO, Fesko tries to hold a steady hand on the tiller and delegate as much as possible. “I'm somebody that doesn't get too up or too down,” he says. “I don't show a lot of emotion. I work well with the team, I assist when needed, but I do not micromanage. Once we come up with a direction we want to follow—many of (the staff) are experts in their fields, and I allow them to run with projects.”

David Wickland, who has been board president of the Munster Medical Research Foundation (the legal name for Community Hospital) during Fesko's entire tenure, says the CEO's methods have led staff to perform at a high level, earning the hospital a national 50 Best designation from HealthGrades and inclusion on the 100 Top Hospitals from Thomson Reuters.

“Everyone here works very hard to deliver the quality that we think our patients are entitled to,” Wickland says. “Don has been very instrumental in all of our awards and accolades, in motivating the medical staff to those successes.”

A member of the committee that selected Fesko as COO in 2004, Wickland says they realized “he's got a good sense of humor, he's smart and educated. It's a tough balancing act with the physicians and the rest of the employee. You have to keep them all happy. Don has been very successful.”

The board knew longtime CEO Ed Robinson—who had served since the hospital opened its doors in 1973—would be stepping down when they chose Fesko, and they very much groomed him for the position, Wickland says.

“We'd like to think that we saw in him a lot of good things, and our investment in his training has panned out in spades,” he says. “If you talk to physicians on staff, if you talk with managers, they like working where they are. They like working with Don.”

All winners of the ACHE awards will be honored during the college's annual Congress on Healthcare Leadership, March 19-22 in Chicago. Profiles were written by Ed Finkel, a frequent Modern Healthcare contributor.

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