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Published on September 21, 2016

Workspace: St. Vincent’s HealthCare’s Tom VanOsdol ‘walking’ toward excellence in health care

By Marilyn Young, Financial News & Daily Record

When Tom VanOsdol needs a bit of an energizer, he walks the halls at St. Vincent’s HealthCare.

It’s where he sees what he loves about the business.

The care being delivered to patients.

The chance to give an attaboy or attagirl to an employee who is providing compassionate aid.

An opportunity to just smile and say hello, letting workers know he appreciates what they do.

It also takes VanOsdol back to what was so magical about being a caregiver himself, long before he became chief operating officer at St. Vincent’s in December. Bookends of a career that has stretched nearly three decades.

Over that time, he’s learned effective leaders have tentacles that reach deep in an organization, able to transform it at all levels.

Those tentacles can come in the form of an improved process, open communication or cleaning toilets alongside employees. And yes, he’s really done that.

Understanding a bigger influence

VanOsdol began his career in 1988 at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Marion, Ind., as a speech language pathologist.

He said he likes the specialty because it’s one that touches patients from birth to end of life.

Little ones with facial anomalies, children with speech and language disorders and adults who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries or strokes.

Every day, VanOsdol could see the difference he was making. Sometimes it was helping a patient learn to communicate more effectively, other times it was teaching them to chew and swallow safely.

“You see such relief and gratitude and probably a recognition of something we all take advantage of on a day-to day basis,” he said.

His first venture into administration came at what is now St. Vincent’s Anderson Regional Hospital in Anderson, Ind. He agreed to serve as the rehabiliation department’s representative for the hospital’s management and continuous improvement efforts.

The more he got involved in the effort, the more fascinated he became with how interdependent each department is on one another for the patient to have as seamless an experience as possible.

VanOsdol was later asked to apply for the job of director of case management, quality improvement and risk management, which he got.

Accepting the job was a decision that caused some doubt for a few years. One that made him ask, “Is this where I’m supposed to be?”

He no longer had the daily satisfaction of seeing progress made by patients he treated.

As an administrator, the process improvement plan takes days or weeks or longer to work through. VanOsdol couldn’t end each day knowing the tangible difference God had made through him.

Instead, he’d tell himself at the end of some day's, “I did a lot of work, ran into some barriers, hit some frustrations and I’ve got a lot more to do.”

VanOsdol ultimately realized while the administrative process was often longer, it had much greater impact.

Getting the process right means every person touched by that process has a safer and more reliable patient-centric experience.

Those doubts that had lingered on-and-off for three or four years were gone.

“That’s what has driven me ever since,” he said.

Building trust with employees

An earlier transformation came when VanOsdol joined the Anderson hospital. It was his first job in a Catholic-based institution.

He wanted to see what the culture and climate were like in that type of organization versus what he had experienced.

VanOsdol found the connection of his personal values with the organization’s values to be so strong that he said he never wants to be anywhere else.

The hospital’s core values were not just articulated in a frame on the wall, he said. They were lived out in how decisions were made and how employees were included in the process of change.

He was in awe when the Sisters of the Holy Cross would walk in the hallways, call employees by name and ask how they were doing. “I was hooked,” he said.

VanOsdol worked hard to build trust and communication with the employees there.

He began to walk the halls, where he knew the names of nearly all 1,400 associates. (St. Vincent’s HealthCare has 5,000 workers on three campuses and 55 ambulatory sites.)

He likes greeting employees by their first names, which is one of the reasons the Indiana hospital redesigned its badges to make the first name larger.

Employees called him by his first name, which he wants in Jacksonville, as well.

“I’ll always and forever be Tom,” he said.

As hospital president, VanOsdol started “Tom Walks in Your Shoes,” where once a month he would spend up to a day working side-by-side with employees in a department.

One of the most memorable was scrubbing toilets with environmental services employees.

“They had an absolute ball,” he said, including taking pictures to hang on the bulletin board.

VanOsdol used those days to build more than just fun memories.

He wanted to spend enough time with employees so they would open up about what works well for them and what they would like to see improved.

He wanted to know specifics such as if they didn’t understand a process or if they couldn’t get supplies.

VanOsdol knew employees likely wouldn’t stop by his office to share their concerns.

Instead, he said, “They’re just going to be frustrated on a day-to-day basis.”

Many of the concerns were ones he could address, eliminating barriers for them.

“I could make a pretty small change that made a big difference,” said VanOsdol, who is working on developing the program in Jacksonville.

Finding new halls to walk

Leaving Anderson was difficult, but the timing was right for VanOsdol. He and his wife, Kathy, were close to being empty nesters when the Jacksonville opportunity came up at the end of 2015.

Their daughter, Hope, is a first-year law student at Indiana University, and their son, Matthew, is a freshman at Purdue University, studying nutritional science and dietetics.

Kathy and the family’s miniature dachshund, Chester, arrived in town last month.

As he did in Anderson, VanOsdol has played in a band with coworkers at hospital gatherings. He played guitar during a recent banquet honoring employees. He also plays the trumpet, which he has since fifth-grade.

When he gets more time, VanOsdol will play more golf, for which he has a 14 handicap.

“I’m good enough to really have fun at it but not so good that people wonder if I’m in the office enough,” he said.

He’ll have time in retirement to play, he said.

Until then, he has more halls to walk.

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