Carondelet Health Network: Ruth Brinkley, President and CEO

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Carondelet Health Network in Tucson, Arizona, was founded 130 years ago by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. In 1870, Seven Sisters embarked on an arduous journey — by train from St. Louis to San Francisco, by boat from San Francisco to San Diego and by covered wagon from San Diego to what was then clearly the Wild West. Their original mission involved educating children. However, just 10 years later their mission evolved into a Mission to Heal when they were asked to open and operate Arizona’s first hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital.

Today, that original 12-bed hospital has transformed into Southern Arizona’s largest healthcare network. Carondelet Health Network now includes five hospitals offering more than 1,150 beds, a state-of-the-art neurological institute and 20 primary care and specialty practices. Carondelet is also an affiliate of the nation’s largest Catholic, nonprofit healthcare ministry, Ascension Health.

“We aim to provide for the healthcare needs of our community, and we embrace the whole person in body, mind and spirit,” says Ruth W. Brinkley, RN, FACHE, President and CEO of the organization since late 2007 and West Ministry Market Leader for Ascension Health. Modern Healthcare Magazine recognized Brinkley this year as one of the Top 25 Minority Leaders in Health Care.

Moreover, her work has gained significant recognition by the Arizona Daily Star, which noted that Brinkley is the third most influential woman in Southern Arizona, just behind the governor and Tucson’s (now former) superintendent of schools.

While Carondelet Health Network provides Tucson and Southern Arizona with some of the area’s most advanced healthcare options, Brinkley also recognizes the Network’s mission to serve all people. “It’s important to us that we serve all persons with dignity and that includes service of the poor. Typically, those who are poor and vulnerable are marginalized. We want to make sure they are treated with as much dignity and respect as everyone else.”

A Commitment to a Culture of Excellence

“I believe that we should treat every one of our patients and families with the highest degree of excellence,” says Brinkley. “That goes for everything from the service we provide to how we deliver those services. Most importantly, it extends to our clinical outcomes and the safety of our patients.”

Brinkley believes in starting with high quality leaders who come to Carondelet already instilled with the intrinsic values important to Carondelet’s mission. Brinkley then puts many resources toward developmental programs for those leaders and affiliated physicians, not to mention administrative, clinical and operational teams.

“You build a culture of excellence by having shared experiences and shared values,” Brinkley says. “We have spent a lot of time building that shared culture of excellence.”

Carondelet holds quarterly sessions where participants spend two days away from the hospital working on leadership qualities and skills. Brinkley also likes to use awards and recognition for great work and true leadership. “In some ways, we are like any other organization,” she says. “We have our problems, however, we try to recognize and reward those things we value.”

Developing a Continuum of Care

Brinkley credits her outlook to her nursing background. “I never forget the fact that everything we are doing is to take care of our patients—not just while they are in the hospital, but to keep them healthy for life,” she says. “Hospital care is a very small part of most patients’ whole lifetime of experience with healthcare. It’s a very intense portion and usually takes up a fair amount of resources; however, there is a whole health continuum that exists outside the hospital. My clinical background as a nurse helps me really understand that a patient is more than a disease that we see in a hospital.”

One of Brinkley’s goals is to make sure that all of Carondelet’s employees understand they are there to serve the patient. It doesn’t matter whether they are working in a patient care unit, food services, housekeeping, administration, shared services or revenue cycle. “Whatever we are doing, it is in service to the patient,” she says. “It’s hard sometimes to help people in non-patient care areas to recognize that they are there to take care of patients, too, yet we really try to emphasize that.”

Brinkley says the focus of healthcare is and should be shifting to the wellness side of the spectrum. This outlook is what she is striving to create in Carondelet environments. She strongly believes that, beyond treating illness, a healthcare facility should be looking at how it can impact wellness throughout its community.

Meeting Community Needs

In 2008, Carondelet Health Network opened Southern Arizona’s first and only comprehensive neurological care center, Carondelet Neurological Institute, on the campus of Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital. Its mission is to provide the region with the best possible care for all neurological illnesses and injuries, including stroke, brain tumors, spine tumors, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, balance problems and aphasia, among others. The Institute is a 54-bed, all-private-room facility, with the area’s only dedicated Neurological Critical Care Unit.

“Before Carondelet Neurological Institute opened, patients in Southern Arizona often had to be sent out of town or even out of the state to be treated for emergent and complex neurological injuries and illnesses,” notes Brinkley. This created a hardship not only for patients but also for their families and loved ones. “Now, our patients have the very best quality care from the first sign of a problem.” And, they have readily available support from their families and social systems.

Carondelet Neurological Institute provides a true continuum of care from diagnosis, through surgery and treatment, recovery, inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient rehabilitation, plus support services, such as progressive community outreach and education opportunities. Most impressive may be Carondelet Neurological Institute’s state-of-the-art technology.

Carondelet Neurological Institute was the first facility in North America to introduce a dual-solution BrainSUITE iCT from BrainLAB. This technology allows a CT scanner to be housed in a “garage” between two surgical suites. Either room can employ the device during surgery, for example, to check the placement of surgical screws—ensuring precise placement and virtually eliminating the need to bring a patient back into surgery. The dual-solution is so unique, physicians from all over the United States, and as far away as Australia, have visited Carondelet Neurological Institute since the suites opened in January 2009 to see how the technology works.

Carondelet also focuses on reaching out across Southern Arizona’s vast desert expanses to surrounding rural communities through its commitment to telemedicine. “We offer services such as tele-stroke, tele-neuro, tele-cardiology, and tele-diabetes,” says Brinkley. “It allows patients in rural communities to receive expert care close to home and helps us keep those patients as near to their families as we can. This effort is part of our dedication to increasing access to care everywhere we can, to everyone we can.”

“Carondelet is all about high reliability, high quality, a commitment to a culture of excellence and helping our patients achieve the optimal levels of wellness,” says Brinkley. “We do all of this while remaining true to our Catholic heritage and the legacy of the Seven Sisters. We continue their mission to heal today by assuring that all persons leave our health ministry feeling that they have been helped and healed—in body, mind and spirit.”

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