Katie Galbraith talks about jump from Duke hospital to Lankenau Medical Center

Galbraith, who has led Duke Regional Hospital for years, talks with Chief Healthcare Executive about becoming Lankenau’s next president, her unconventional background, and taking care of staff.

Katie Galbraith has spent her entire 26-year healthcare career with the Duke University Health System, so she says she didn’t pursue another job lightly.

“I always knew that it would take a really special place to draw me away from Duke,” says Galbraith, the departing president of Duke Regional Hospital in Durham, N.C.

As she learned more about Lankenau Medical Center just outside Philadelphia, “the more I realized what a special place it is,” she says.

In September, Galbraith will take over as the new president of Lankenau Medical Center, a part of Main Line Health in the Philadelphia region. She will succeed Phillip D. Robinson, who has led the hospital for 12 years and is retiring.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Galbraith talked about her unusual background for a hospital president, her new role, and the lessons she’s taken from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a huge change,” she says. “I love where I am. This is an amazing organization with extraordinary people. I have been incredibly privileged to have served here for as long as I have, and to have served this community. And I’ve really been able to be a part of this community.

“The thought of starting over is on the one hand, a little bit scary, and on the other hand incredibly exciting to just have a new adventure.” (See portions of our conversation in this video; the story continues below the video.)

‘People caring for people’

Galbraith said she was drawn to Main Line Health’s commitment to excellence, equity and affordability.

“I really wanted to be able to have that deep sense of commitment to community, commitment to equity, commitment to people, because healthcare at its core is people caring for people,” Galbraith says.

“And we can't do any of what we do without a highly engaged, highly skilled, diverse team, team members who feel like they can bring their whole selves to the table every day, into the work every day,” she adds. “And I found that.”

Jack Lynch, president and CEO of  Main Line Health, said in a statement, “Katie’s acumen and accomplishments in safety, quality, equity and performance metrics in care delivery and patient access will be assets that will help our system continue along its outstanding trajectory.”

Galbraith acknowledges her background as a hospital executive isn’t exactly conventional, but she thinks her experience has prepared her well.

She began working at Duke Children’s Hospital in marketing and communications before joining Duke Regional Hospital in 2001. She held other leadership posts before becoming president of the hospital in 2014.

“It’s a very non-traditional background, obviously,” she concedes. “There are not a lot of us who have come up through the communication and marketing side of things into operations and into this type of role.

“What I draw from every single day, in every interaction, is those communication skills,” she adds. “How do you build relationships? How do we share transparently what we’re doing? How do we tell the story? I pull from that all the time.

Galbraith says she was happy to see the completion of Duke Regional’s new behavioral health center last year. The $102-million project was the largest initiative since the hospital opened in 1976.

She says she has counseled others about the virtues of trying new challenges, but her children urged her to take her own advice with Lankenau. Galbraith recalls her kids saying, “You keep guiding others to get out of their comfort zones. Maybe this is the opportunity for you to do the same thing.” Laughing, she adds, “Wise kids.”

Galbraith said she’s proud of Duke Regional’s growth and improvements in quality and safety. “It’s time to turn this over to someone else and be able to again build on a really strong foundation at Lankenau and see where we can go there,” she says.

‘Listen to the community’

Without question, Galbraith says she’ll take some of the lessons she’s learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. She stresses the “importance of really listening to our community, and the voices of our community.”

“Sometimes in healthcare, we have a tendency to get in our box of clinical care and just focus on clinical care and thinking that we know best,” Galbraith says. “I think what we’ve learned over the last two and a half years, at least what I’ve learned and what I’ve taken away, is that no, the community knows best.

“We need to really lean in, we need to really listen to the community, understand their needs, what they’re asking us for, and how we can truly partner with them.”

The pandemic has illustrated the profound disparities in healthcare among minority groups and those in underserved areas. Those disparities existed long before the arrival of COVID-19, but the differences in outcomes are more apparent than ever, she says.

“I’m glad that now we’re paying attention in a very different way with a really deep commitment to dismantling structural racism, and the impact that has on health and really eliminating health disparities,” Galbraith says. “That’s going to take time. You can’t unwind centuries of history overnight. And we need to focus on it.”

Galbraith says she’s impressed with Lankenau’s efforts on health equity, including the Deaver Wellness Farm, which addresses food insecurity. She says she’s anxious to tackle health equity issues at Lankenau, but she says she plans to listen and learn.

“I’m sure there may be some things that I can bring from lessons learned from here,” she says. “But mostly I’m wanting to go in and learn the Lankenau way, and the Main Line Health way ... and what is needed in west Philadelphia, and what the community wants there.”

Part of that effort to address health equity includes a focus on diversity. Throughout the 30-minute conversation, Galbraith repeatedly emphasizes the need to have a diverse staff and allowing people to be their full selves in the workplace.

“It’s critically important that we strive to have our teams reflect the community that we serve, and have diverse teams,” she said.

She also touted the importance of diversity in the leadership team. Duke Regional has made a concerted effort to build a more diverse leadership team, with about 60% of the board including members of underrepresented groups, and women make up about 60% of the board.

“Having people with different lived experiences at the table helps us make better decisions,” she says.

“If I surround myself with people who look like me, think like me, come from the same background as me, I may get a lot of yeses when it’s time to make decisions,” Galbraith says. “But they may not be the best decisions, because they’re not as well informed as being able to inform that decision by surrounding myself with people from very different backgrounds, and who look at things through a different lens.”

Stress on workers

Healthcare workers have had to go beyond what anyone could reasonably imagine during the pandemic, and Galbraith says the stress on staff is her top concern.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that keeps me up at night, is the concern for the well-being for our team,” she says. “There are so many challenges within healthcare itself, and there are so many challenges in the team around us, and every one of our team members lives in the world around us. We spend a lot of our lives here at the hospital or within clinics, but not all of our lives.

“The stress, I can see it, and we can feel it,” she says. “It’s palpable.”

Hospitals across America are wrestling with the toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers. Some polls and studies say a sizable number of doctors and nurses plan to walk away in the next two years because they’ve had enough.

Duke Regional has brought on additional chaplain support and refined workflows to reduce wasteful steps that are causing staff headaches. She also touted the benefits of recognizing and celebrating staff members.

Part of staff wellness involves confronting the rising violence aimed at healthcare workers, Galbraith says. About half of hospital nurses said this spring that workplace violence is rising, according to a poll from National Nurses United.

“The other thing I would say around well-being that I think is absolutely essential right now, and I don’t think we’re talking enough about, is workplace safety,” Galbraith says. “First and foremost, making sure that our team members feel safe at work. We’ve seen an uptick in violence against healthcare workers through the pandemic.”

“Some of that is because of, again, the challenges so many of our patients are facing themselves, especially the behavioral health and substance use challenges,” she says. “We still have a responsibility to keep our team members safe. We can’t talk about broader well-being unless we’re also incorporating that safety.”