For Patricia Maryland, DrPH, president of healthcare operations and COO for Ascension Health, efficiency in care-giving was an early necessity that turned into a life-long career path and personal brand.
As the eldest child in a large family, the role of caregiver and care coordinator fell to Maryland. In addition to having a large family, Maryland’s mother was diabetic. These early experiences shaped her life and her career. “I saw firsthand how challenging it was to navigate the healthcare system. I recall my frustration with the fragmented system, particularly as her condition continued to worsen. This experience motivated me to begin my career in health care,” Maryland says. “To this day, I reflect on my mother’s experience as I strive to ensure our more than 2,500 sites of care deliver exceptional health outcomes and an exceptional experience for the people we serve, at an affordable cost.”
She had the motivation, but Maryland says she knew early on that to accomplish her goals, she would need more than just the desire to succeed, so she made her education a priority. “I was taught at an early age that if I wanted to achieve professional success and thrive in the healthcare industry, I needed more than relevant practical experience. It also required me to obtain a quality education and the necessary technical skill set,” she recalls. She started her career path with a degree in applied mathematics from Alabama State University, followed by a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and then a doctorate of public health with a concentration on health services administration and planning from the University of Pittsburgh.
Her professional career began as a biostatistician at Syntex Corp., and she worked as a strategic planner at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh as she completed her degree. As she moved up through the healthcare administration chain, Maryland took on roles as division administrator of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, assistant director of patient care services, and senior planner at the Cleveland Clinic. Eventually, she moved to Michigan, working in senior leadership roles for several hospitals around Detroit. She served as president of three other hospitals before taking the lead at Ascension Health—Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit, St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, and St. John Providence Health System in Warren, Mich.
When she took the role at St. John in late 2007, Detroit was struggling economically. But Maryland faced the hardships head-on. “This came at a time when our national economy was significantly struggling, and Detroit was among the hardest-hit regions in the country. Even though this situation presented many challenges for every Detroit-based hospital system, our team was able to refocus our efforts by identifying ways to maintain the vitality and sustainability of our organization,” Maryland says. “For the next several years, our transformational journey involved a new way of operating, such as reducing layers of management, increasing span of control, tightening our purchasing processes, and consolidating our service contracts.”
Under her guidance, St. John delivered a net income of about $60 million by 2012 while providing more than $155 million in care to patients living in poverty or participating in community benefit programs. When she took on her current role at Ascension Health in 2013, she brought her skills of coordinating care with efficiency along.
“I was presented with a number of opportunities to make our organization more operationally efficient. One example involved leading teams across our national health system as we developed several value-creation opportunities that consisted of revenue cycle, labor optimization, clinical process reliability, information technology optimization, physician enterprise optimization, and facilities management,” Maryland says. “These priorities were designed to ensure Ascension Health’s transformation through innovation across the continuum of care and to continue our commitment to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable.”
In the first two years at Ascension Health, Maryland’s efforts helped meet and exceed projected goals, with $634 million in incremental savings, she says. Generating these kinds of outcomes is not easy, and for Maryland, it meant not being afraid to take on a difficult task—a lesson she passes on to those she mentors.
“I counsel women healthcare leaders to take on the difficult tasks and dare to become a trailblazer despite the high risk of failure that may be involved. This requires a leader who is open to change as she seeks growth opportunities,” Maryland says. “I always look for women leaders who have purpose, and those who have mastered their areas of healthcare expertise, such as operations, strategy, finance, and clinical care excellence. Women have to embrace the opportunity to lead people, manage change, and set a strategic direction. Lastly, women leaders must hold themselves and others accountable.”
Despite her high-profile position, Maryland is careful to make sure work doesn’t become all-encompassing. She embraces Ascension’s vision of holistic health by making time to eat right and exercise, as well as adding time to her schedule for prayer, reflection, community service, and family.
“I always ensure that my family remains my top priority. Making time for my husband and two children is of the utmost importance,” Maryland says. “They are the backbone of my professional success, and I have an obligation to ensure we remain a strong family and continue to grow together.”
Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a healthcare reporter from Cleveland.