Why Running a Hospital is Like a Family Business

Mary Bakken’s philosophy at New Lenox Silver Cross Hospital is to always put patients’ needs first

Growing up in a family that owned a small manufacturing company in Milwaukee gave Mary Bakken a solid grounding in how to run a business. “My roots are in a family business,” she says. “It’s now third-generation. I’m so proud that two of my three brothers continued it, and now their sons and sons-in-law are continuing the business. That really became part of my core in terms of seeing how a business runs, how to take care of employees, and how to be successful. But I had no desire to move into engineering and manufacturing; I was drawn to healthcare.”

Today, Bakken applies that family business knowledge—along with her experience as a medical technologist—to her position as executive VP and chief operating officer at New Lenox Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois. The hospital is independent, though it partners with a variety of prestigious area hospitals, including University of Chicago Medicine, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Lurie Children’s Hospital, and Northwestern Medicine. A little more than five years ago, Silver Cross opened its new 296-bed hospital to replace a facility that was more than a hundred years old. The older facility had been expanded in various ways over the decades into what Bakken calls a hodgepodge. For example, the emergency department was located at one end of the hospital, far away from the patients’ rooms. The new hospital puts each department in the best place for patient care.

“We developed a procedural care unit, a new unit that consolidates all the traditional procedural areas—such as surgery, endoscopy, interventional cardiology, radiology, and neuroendovascular surgery—and located them on one platform, one integrated unit,” Bakken says. “We actually saw, within a matter of less than two weeks, an example where that proximity of all those different medical skill sets and equipment likely saved a patient’s life. Everyone that needed to be was right there.”

Not Just Hospital Food

Mary Bakken exercises regularly, but if she had more time for hobbies, she would also exercise her skills at gourmet cooking more often. That interest has spilled over into her work at Silver Cross Hospital, where she ensures the hospital’s cuisine is prepared by an executive chef. At the new Silver Cross Hospital, not only can patients order room service customized to their diets, but visitors also can purchase meals in patients’ rooms or in the hospital’s modern dining facilities.

The new facility was designed with the input of hospital staff to improve patient care. Inpatient units in the new hospital have been reduced from forty to fifty beds in the old hospital to eighteen beds each—all private rooms. The new hospital’s hallways also have been curved so that caregivers can see down the halls more easily.

The new 560,000-square-foot hospital is located on a 158-acre campus that encompasses a 20,000-square-foot cancer center, two medical office buildings, and an ambulatory surgery center that’s scheduled to open this fall. The hospital also plans to expand its 20-bed behavioral health unit into a standalone 100-bed hospital that, if approved by the state, could be completed by 2019.

Silver Cross Hospital has five satellite facilities throughout Will and southwestern Cook Counties and a 24/7 freestanding emergency care center in Homer Glen, Illinois.

Bakken oversees the day-to-day operations of the hospital’s facilities and, along with her peers, its strategic endeavors. “My role is to ensure that our doctors, nurses, and other caregivers have what they need to provide excellent care,” she says. “My own personal leadership philosophy is to support and serve the people who really deliver the core services in the organization, who are on the front lines.”

Silver Cross Hospital invests a lot of time to educate leaders and caregivers in safety habits and error-
prevention techniques. Bakken also leads a daily safety huddle for all department heads to develop situational awareness—a collective understanding of the state of operations. This includes reports of safety events such as falls, medication errors, and delays in care; assigning ownership for issue resolution; and ensuring a common understanding of the focus and priorities for the day. “These huddles represent our ongoing commitment to safety and transparency,” Bakken says. “Problems that were previously unknown or unresolved are now addressed in a day or two.”

The hospital has a strategic plan with three pillars: access, culture, and excellence—or ACE. “Within each of the pillars, we have strategic initiatives and actions, and we hold ourselves accountable to those,” Bakken explains. The three-year strategic plan is reviewed and, if necessary, revised annually.

About 2,600 people work at Silver Cross Hospital, its satellite locations, and other facilities. Silver Cross promotes from within and hires from the outside when a fresh approach is needed.

The hospital’s Lean Learners program trains more than one hundred people annually in process improvement methodologies. The participants choose a project from their department to improve, and they report on its progress at the end of their training sessions and again in ninety and 180 days. “That really has created a significant spread in terms of employee development that is also aligned with improving the performance of the hospital,” Bakken says. “We create a community of problem solvers. They see problems, and they have the wherewithal to address them.”

Bakken has spent more than thirty-five years in the healthcare industry, working on the front lines, first as a phlebotomist and medical technologist and then in management and senior management. Her master’s degree in business from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and her background as a certified public accountant in a public accounting firm have helped her manage the financial aspects of healthcare without losing sight of the healthcare industry’s mission. “My advice is to keep the patient at the center,” Bakken says. “Always ensure that decisions are being made with the patient being central to that decision.”