Wayne Lerner has a habit of putting his hospital's community and staff ahead of himself, no matter where he's served in a career that has spanned nearly four decades.
A Chicagoan who grew up on the city's West Side, Lerner isn't too far from home at Holy Cross Hospital, where he's worked as the safety net facility's president and CEO since 2006. He grew up with Howard Berman, a 2012 inductee of Modern Healthcare's Health Care Hall of Fame who was the longtime CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield's affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., and a former American Hospital Association director and group vice president.
While attending a wedding when Lerner was still an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Champaign, Berman encouraged Lerner to pursue a master's in hospital administration at the University of Michigan. Lerner was majoring in psychology and math.
It rang a bell in the young man. “I had been in management since I was kid,” recalls Lerner, now 63. “I managed a drugstore and a Burger King when I was 17. So we talked about hospital administration, and I went to Michigan and interviewed. I was lucky enough to be accepted.”
Lerner, one of two American College of Healthcare Executives Gold Medal Award winners this year—the highest honor given by the organization—was the first of his family to graduate from college. His only connection to healthcare came tangentially from his father, who served as an Army medic in World War II.
While at Ann Arbor, Lerner quickly discovered the differences between hospital operations and his other managerial experiences. He says he was drawn to healthcare because of the opportunity to serve others. It was there he met Gail Warden, who served as his mentor and also went through the University of Michigan master's program.
Warden would eventually become the longtime president and CEO of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Last year, Lerner became chairman of the Griffith Leadership Center in Health Management & Policy advisory board at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a post Warden previously held.
After earning his master's, Lerner joined Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago in 1972 and served in a variety of roles, including vice president of administrative affairs and chairman of the department of
health systems management. He says he loves his profession, but recalls it wasn't such an easy transition from undergraduate studies.
“The first years I was at Michigan, I really thought I was taking Latin,” he says. “I had no concept of what was going on.”
Lerner isn't a stranger to today's climate of hospital mergers and consolidations. He served from 1990 to 1996 as president of the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. The hospital in 1996 merged with Barnes Hospital in St. Louis to form what eventually would become BJC HealthCare.
A year later, Lerner edited Anatomy of a Merger: BJC Health System, which covers details of the transaction with the help of several healthcare executives who were involved in the deal. His aim was to provide executives an insider's view of the merger that brought together providers in urban, suburban and rural areas. Lerner pushed for the deal, which also called for C-suite consolidation that ultimately cost Lerner his leadership position.
The creation of BJC left the merger partners in a better position to form an integrated delivery model, which was a boon to the community. Lerner says he knew that it would help the St. Louis metropolitan area and supported the merger, even if it left him without a job.
That's no surprise for Berman, who marvels at Lerner's altruism: “He was willing to fall on his own economic sword if it would benefit the community,” Berman says.
Lerner's work continues at Holy Cross. Warden praises Lerner for steering the previously financially struggling hospital on Chicago's South Side into the black. The facility's stability was further bolstered last month when Sinai Health System in Chicago acquired Holy Cross.
Not everyone with Lerner's credentials would want to find themselves in a high-pressure situation like at Holy Cross, where the CEO faced the responsibility of changing the financial fortunes of an inner-city hospital with few resources. Lerner's efforts at Holy Cross have included recruiting a new management team and partnering with local Catholic officials to secure additional resources to improve healthcare in the neighborhood.
The value of mentors such as Warden and other lessons learned through experience isn't lost on Lerner, who advises administrators of all experience levels to be patient and take the time to learn about their communities and participate in local activities.
“The most important thing you can do is walk in their shoes,” Lerner says. “You need to take a breath once in a while and realize folks within our organization are working one or two jobs in order to support their families. We serve on the behalf of our community, but we're also responsible for the people who work in our organization.”