TURNING POINTS: Hospital Sisters’ Mary Starmann-Harrison Advises, “Make the Difficult Decisions Sooner Rather than Later”

Second installment of Turning Points, a Chief Healthcare Executive™ video series that invites retiring hospital and health system CEOs to share insights on how the healthcare landscape has changed and what challenges await the next generation of healthcare leaders.

This week, CHE welcomes Mary Starmann-Harrison, whose career in healthcare administration spans more than 40 years. During her 10 years as CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System, Starmann-Harrison has spearheaded the expansion of hospitals and physician groups in both Illinois and Wisconsin. She will retire in July.

This transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Chief Healthcare Executive™: As you retire from Hospital Sisters Health System, what initiatives are you most proud of?

Starmann-Harrison: Not so much initiatives, but I am most proud of our colleagues. We have a tremendous group of colleagues that are completely committed to our mission and serving our patients in an incredible way.

We've had major growth over the past 10 years. We've built new hospitals, we've expanded our physician groups. We've had some major strategic initiatives that have really advanced our mission.

CHE: If you could select one major healthcare advance that you knew would be important as soon as it happened, what was it and why?

Starmann-Harrison: The major healthcare advance that I remember being the most dramatic was the advancement of laparoscopic surgery. In the very early days of laparoscopic surgery, people were not sure it was going to be something of the future. And it started with laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, and it went into almost every area: urology, [gastrointestinal], cardiac. And it really changed the world from doing open procedures that required hospitalization and weeks of recovery time, to outpatient surgery with a very short recovery time of a couple of days. So, I really think that was probably the most dramatic change, especially in clinical medicine, that I have experienced.

CHE: Conversely, is there something that happened in healthcare during your career that was dismissed as unimportant early on, that turned out to be extremely important—for good or ill?

Starmann-Harrison: You know, I think the advancement of ambulatory surgery, when it first started, there were a lot of folks that thought it wouldn't be as successful as it turned out to be. A lot of people felt, no, you needed the backup of a huge hospital. And, that did not prove to be true. People just were not sure that was going to work, and look where it went and where it is today.

CHE: What are some challenges you’ve faced during your career? How did these challenges impact your leadership?

Starmann-Harrison: Certainly, [there have been] financial challenges over the years. There've been several situations in the past four decades where we had major changes in reimbursement for hospitals and health care facilities. We had disruptive changes in our markets.

I think what the learnings were, is make the difficult decisions sooner rather than later. And always have compassion as you carry out those decisions. You have to make the hard decisions, but you can always carry them out with a lot of compassion. And so that was my big learning.

CHE: Can you discuss the growth of technology during your time in healthcare? What has been good—and not so good—about the growth of technology in healthcare?

Starmann-Harrison: Well, I see most of the changes in technology as being very good. We already talked about laparoscopic [surgery], which was a game changer in terms of clinical medicine. But think of the electronic health record, which did not exist at the beginning of my career and what it has achieved today for continuity of care for patients. It's remarkable.

And, telehealth [started] as a budding technology, and then the pandemic hit, and it's here to stay. It was a lifesaver during the pandemic. Many patients were able to get care that they might not have gotten if it had not been for telehealth. So, those are just a couple of examples over the years that I think have made a great difference, a wonderful difference, in health care.

CHE: What are the one or two biggest challenges that you see for the next generation of healthcare leaders?

Starmann-Harrison: The two things that come to mind immediately is the speed of change. It's going to be much more rapid and we're going to have to be much more nimble as we go forward.

So, that would be the first, and then the second would be that healthcare is competitive now. We're going to have non-traditional competitors in healthcare, and that can change the game. So, I think we have to be prepared for people entering parts of healthcare that have traditionally not participated in healthcare.

CHE: What advances do you see at Huntsville Hospital in the next five years?

Starmann-Harrison: I see organic growth as well as inorganic growth. As we look at our footprint in Illinois and Wisconsin, I also see an increase in the number of ambulatory facilities that we have in the system. And I see continued growth of our physician partners.

CHE: What are you looking forward to in retirement?

Starmann-Harrison: Well, first, I'm really looking forward to enjoying time with my husband and my family. You know, I have two adult children and they're a little bit spread out, but we will have plenty of time to visit. I'm also looking forward to traveling with friends. We have a lot of good friends who have just retired and so that's in the plans for sure.

I love to play golf, although I'm not a good golfer because I do not play enough to be good. So, I'm hoping I will have an improved golf game. And, you know, volunteering, having fun, providing services for others in a volunteer effort. And then I'd love to read. So, I will get to read my mystery novels whenever I want.