University Hospital Interim CEO Mary Maples relishes her opportunity

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Maples talks about the COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation of the campus in Newark, N.J., and revitalizing the workforce.

Mary K.E. Maples doesn’t try to hide her enthusiasm about her new role.

In March, Maples was named the interim president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. She took the post at a critical time in the hospital’s history.

While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped, the pandemic is hardly a memory. Like many hospitals, University Hospitals is dealing with staffing challenges and burnout.

University Hospital is also in the beginning stages of a planned transformation of the campus.

And the hospital is striving to continue improvements after a highly critical 2018 state report faulted the facility’s care of patients and its financial management.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Maples discussed the challenges ahead of her and how much she is looking forward to the responsibility.

“It’s so exciting,” Maples said. “And I’m just completely honored to have the opportunity. This hospital does amazing work.”

At the forefront is the hospital campus renovations.

“University Hospital is embarking on a plan to completely revitalize our campus,” Maples said. “We’re talking about expanding our capacity, building new buildings and engaging the community to really reimagine the campus we sit on as an academic health center.”

“The campus revitalization is top of mind every day.”

The hospital is in the master planning phase of the transformation of the 60-acre campus, which will continue throughout the rest of the year, Maples said.

As New Jersey’s only publicly-owned hospital, the organization must use its resources wisely, she said.

Even with those considerations, Maples said, “It doesn’t stall the creativity and it doesn’t limit the expansiveness of our perspective.” (The story continues after the video.)

From CIA to healthcare

Maples, who earned a law degree at American University, began working at University Hospital in 2018 as chief legal officer and corporate secretary. Before that, she worked with the hospital in her roles in New Jersey’s state government. She served as deputy chief counsel and director of authorities for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. She also served as senior counsel for former Gov. Chris Christie.

Her background differs from many healthcare leaders. Maples spent more than 11 years working with the Central Intelligence Agency.

At the CIA, she specialized in security matters before joining the office of general counsel.

“It’s a place that I hold dear to my heart,” she said.

She said her time at the CIA provided her with valuable experience that is useful in leading a healthcare organization.

“The mission of healthcare, obviously different than foreign intelligence and policy making around that, but in many respects, two very mission-driven organizations with folks who are experts in their field trying to help move that mission forward,” Maples said. “So it was a natural fit.”

“One of the great benefits I think in public service, and certainly the CIA was part of this, you get a lot of responsibility early in your career to deal with issues and quickly realize and have to develop collaboration skills, prioritization skills,” she said. “It’s all about the team and it’s all about identifying an issue and bringing the right people to the table to find a solution that we all can support.”

‘Reinvigorating our current workforce’

Maples will undoubtedly draw on her team-building skills in leading the hospital.

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maples talked about some of her pressing priorities beyond the campus revitalization project.

“We’re dealing with staff burnout,” she said. “We’re dealing with staffing shortages. We’re dealing with patients that continue to need to get back to the care that they missed during the pandemic. We have a lot of priorities that we’re trying to balance at one time. That’s the business of healthcare.”

Maples said the hospital is employing a “multifactor approach” to address staff shortages.

“It’s not just about recruiting,” she said. “It’s also about retention and it's about reinvigorating our current workforce and reminding all of our colleagues here, our teammates here, why we’re in the business in the first place. We went into a profession to serve others, to serve our patients.”

Earlier this month, the hospital held its first in-person town hall in more than two years. Maples said she was encouraged by the enthusiasm.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the joy of service,” she said. “There’s a real morale boost that comes from centering yourself on that work. That feeds into those next conversations. How do we go find the teammates you need? How do we take the teammates we have and get them the education that they might need to grow in a career path?”

Maples said education is going to be a big factor in the hospital’s retention plans.

“We see particular positions we are having trouble filling,” she said. “We know we have employees here who, if given a pathway to get further educated and expand their own career potential, might go down the path.”

Many hospitals have been offering bonuses of $10,000 or more to attract new workers in key areas, such as nursing. Some are also offering retention bonuses and boosting salaires to keep staff.

University Hospital is paying attention to the market in terms of salaries and bonuses, Maples said, but she said the organization is also looking at ways to help staff find more fulfilling roles.

“Sometimes it’s not always about money,” she said. “It’s about opportunity and feeling that self-worth that comes from growing as a professional.”

Many healthcare workers have struggled with burnout and mental health challenges in the pandemic. Maples said part of her responsibility is to send the message to staff that they can share when they need a break or are feeling overwhelmed.

The hospital recently designated a wellness room where staff can go in and recharge when needed. And the hospital has organized peer support groups so staff can vent to colleagues.

“It’s OK to articulate that you need to reset, that you’re having a particular challenge emotionally, mentally and need some help,” she said.

Improving patient safety

Less than two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, University Hospital faced one of its most difficult periods.

In December 2018, a state monitor’s report commissioned by Gov. Murphy found serious deficiencies at the hospital. The report pointed to inadequate leadership, insufficient board oversight and the lack of a strategic plan.

In addition, the hospital was falling short in keeping patients safe. The Leapfrog Group, a watchdog organization that measures hospitals in patient safety, gave University Hospital an “F” in 2018. It was one of only 30 hospitals nationwide to get a failing grade.

Since then, the hospital’s financial performance has improved and the organization has earned higher marks in patient safety. In its most recent grades this spring, Leapfrog gave the hospital a “C.”

“We have been on a very focused journey on both quality and financial performance,” Maples said.

“We’re minding where every dollar goes and making sure that we maximize every financial opportunity so the hospital can reinvest in itself and put our resources where they’re most needed.”

Maples said she was proud of the higher marks in Leapfrog’s most recent report. But she said the staff talks "all day, every day" about doing better.

She also spoke of the emotional toll the state report took on the staff.

“It was tough because we have dedicated employees,” she said. “Folks that work here really care about the mission of the hospital and really care about our patients and truly come to work every day trying to do their best. That was a time that absolutely impacted our morale.”

“What we’ve been doing ever since though is celebrating those wins, encouraging each other, celebrating the successes that we have and continuing to keep our eyes on the prize, on the ‘A’ in Leapfrog and on even better financial performance.”

A little more than a year after the monitor’s report, when the hospital was starting to show progress, COVID-19 arrived, and northern New Jersey was at the epicenter of the outbreak. The hospital played a key role in establishing and supplying field stations. The system showed its resilience in caring for patients and making improvements, Maples said.

After undertaking a strategic plan in the wake of the state report, Maples said the hospital is now on the cusp of refreshing its plans. She’ll be working with leaders and the board on new strategic plans for the next 3-5 years.

She wants to find ways to connect the hospital with some of the development taking place in downtown Newark. She also said she hopes to expand the hospital’s outreach to meet other community needs.

Maples is looking forward to the work ahead.

“I find a lot of fun in problem solving and in tackling the next challenge,” she said.

“I see all the challenges ahead as opportunities, to grow, to learn, to work with new people that I hadn't worked with before. .. I am excited.”