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Sky Lakes CEO Named Person of the Year

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Sky Lakes CEO Named Person of the Year

Hospital news | Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Contact: Thomas Hottman

Paul Stewart knows that his style of health care, which transitions away from the traditional system he calls "sick care" to focus instead on wellness and prevention could eventually put hospitals as we know them out of business. He also knows that likely won't happen in his lifetime, but it is because of his work as CEO of Sky Lakes Medical Center that we are naming him our Person of the Year.

Don York, Sky Lakes director of human resources, has worked with Stewart since 1986, when Stewart was hired as the director of clinical services at what was then the Merle West Medical Center. York said his friend and colleague has been determined to make changes in the health care system for years.

Impressive Efforts

Even before the Affordable Care Act, Stewart made it a goal to improve access to health services for patients, and to shift the focus away from treatment of health problems to prevention instead, by encouraging patients to make healthy choices, York said. This year, many of those plans have come to fruition. "Paul has felt that way for many years, and the time is now," York said.

Marilynn Sutherland, the director of Klamath County Public Health, said she is glad to have Stewart as a partner in public health efforts. Stewart goes "above and beyond" duties typical of a hospital CEO and is active in helping make better choices, Sutherland said. As examples of his leadership style, Sutherland points to Stewart's initial effort to organize the Healthy Klamath initiative, which is working on a variety of projects to help improve the county health rankings; the hospital's increased access to health care providers for patients who previously couldn't receive care; and the decision to make the Sky Lakes campus tobacco-free. "It's impressive as far as I'm concerned," Sutherland said.

Recruitment up

Sky Lakes has 1,200 employees, which is up 20 percent in the last five years, Stewart said recently. Part of that increase is due to new hires, including 13 new providers hired this year, and partly because of new partnerships with previously private clinics and providers. Sky Lakes' payroll and benefits costs are "upwards of $100 million," Stewart said. Sky Lakes is successful, both as a business and in these wellness initiatives, in large part to Stewart and the senior management team he has put together and the relationships he's formed in the community, York said. Stewart's leadership skills were evident from the beginning when the two men first worked together under then-CEO Dave Arnold, York said. When Arnold retired, and Stewart was considering applying for the CEO position in 1992, York encouraged him to go for the job, and told him he was one of the most intelligent men he had ever met. That's still true today, York said. Stewart's 22-year tenure as Sky Lakes CEO is unusual in the health care business; CEO positions often have high turnover after just a few years on the job. That tenure makes Stewart one of the longest seated hospital CEOs in the state.

Man of integrity

Stewart is fiercely loyal, first to his family, to the community, and to the mission of the hospital, said his wife, Suzanne Stewart. The couple have been married for almost 36 years, have five children, and 16 grandchildren, Suzanne Stewart said. They've lived in Klamath Falls for 28 years, although she admits she thought they would leave after just two years. "It just grew on us," she said. "We'll never leave." Suzanne Stewart describes her husband as a man of integrity. He "takes responsibility when things don't go well," but gives credit to others instead of patting himself on the back when something is successful, she said. "I think he really kind of speaks for himself," Suzanne Stewart said. "He's mellow but strong, confident but not egotistical." York uses four words to sum up Stewart: faith, family, helpful and kind.

Good read on people

In meetings, when others might be doing calculations on laptops for example, Stewart has the solution in his head first, York said. He also has a "great awareness of people," he said. Maggie Polson, the chief operating officer and interim CEO of the county's coordinated care organization Cascade Health Alliance, offered a similar comment about Stewart. Stewart sits on both the board of directors for Cascade Health Alliance and its partner company Cascade Comprehensive Care. "I think he's got an incredible judgment on people," Polson said. Polson also commented on Stewart's presence in meetings: he's quiet, but you know he's paying attention, but then he'll come in with a comment or idea that is so profound, everyone else in the room is left wondering 'why didn't I think of that?' " she said. "I think the man is brilliant," Polson said.

Stewart sits on several boards, including his newly appointed position to the Oregon Institute of Technology governing board and just completed his time as the chairman of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems board of trustees, and is now the chair of the governance committee for the same organization. "He's been a real leader in the association, a leader amongst his peers," said Andy Davidson, president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. "I have found Paul to be a highly intelligent leader and human being." Stewart has dedicated his life to service and service of others through the hospital and the various community groups he is involved in, Davidson said. He's witnessed conversations between Stewart and his fellow hospital leaders in which he encourages them to think about why they became involved in the business: to help improve the health of their communities and of their employees, Davidson said. Davidson and Stewart have worked through a lot of hard times together, especially with major changes to the health care system due to the Affordable Care Act. Through it all, Stewart is not just professional, but compassionate as well, he said. "What you see is what you get with Paul," Davidson said.

Recognizable 'game face'

York also said that Stewart excels in difficult situations. There have been a number of times when the hospital has been in crisis, whether financial or operational, and in those difficult times, Stewart becomes more focused, York said. "That's when you see the game face come on," he said. York said he has seldom seen Stewart angry, and he is never rude or inappropriate. "What makes him so enjoyable is that he always expects people to do the right thing," York said. "If that doesn't happen, Paul clearly is disappointed." In disagreements, Suzanne Stewart said people might walk away from a conversation with him still disagreeing, but they respect him.

In addition to his work as Sky Lakes CEO and his various positions on organization boards, Stewart is also a "minister of sorts" for the Church of Latter-day Saints, Suzanne Stewart said. He oversees 12 congregations over 10,000 square miles, which is almost another full-time job, she said. Despite the number of his commitments, no one feels neglected, she said. He doesn't often talk about work at home, beyond the occasional conversation about how to encourage children to be active and healthy, Suzanne Stewart said.

Multiple talents

"When he comes home, he's home," she said. "He's learned how to separate those things. It took him a few years." In addition to being "fiercely loyal" to his family, faith and community, her husband is also loyal to golf, "his one guilty pleasure," she said. Stewart also plays the guitar, banjo, ukulele, clarinet and saxophone, and is a singer and a painter. Now, he doesn't often have time for those other pursuits, however, she said. "I have quite a few of his paintings in our home," Suzanne Stewart said.

Polson also made note of Stewart's extracurricular interests, remembering a painting of his that hangs in the executive offices at Sky Lakes. The painting is an impressively detailed watercolor of a soaring hawk. If you didn't notice the painting's signature, you might think the painting was commissioned from a professional artist, not the CEO seated just steps away in his office. "He seems to have a balance of the right brain, left brain," Polson said, adding that she is always impressed with the painting, and the diversity of Stewart's interests.

Stewart was pre-med at Utah State University, where he earned a bachelor of science. He later decided to pursue hospital administration instead of becoming a doctor, and earned a Masters of Health Services Administration from Arizona State University. Stewart not only encourages Sky Lakes patients, employees and members of the community to make healthy choices, but maintains a healthy lifestyle himself, Suzanne Stewart said. He doesn't drink or smoke, and regularly checks the data on his wearable activity tracker called a FitBit. If he's not on track to meet his goal of 10,000 steps a day, he'll make sure to get up and out of his office chair, In spite of his healthy lifestyle, Stewart has been diagnosed with testicular cancer twice, the first time in 2001, his wife said. But he has confidence in the doctors at Sky Lakes and never considered receiving treatment anywhere but his own hospital, Suzanne Stewart said. "He talks the talk and walks the walk," she said.

Quiet leader

To Paulson, Stewart has that "je ne sais quoi," that everyone always hopes for in a leader, but isn't always easy to find. With the right education, it can be easy to make a business, like a hospital, profitable, Paulson said. But for Stewart, Sky Lakes' success also means giving back to the community, Paulson said. With the Klamath Works project, the idea of a "hand up, not a hand out," may have occurred to people before, but not been implemented. Stewart's efforts have helped bring that idea closer to a reality, Paulson said. Despite all his accomplishments, Stewart is not the kind of man who looks for praise, his wife said. "He does the right thing quietly," Suzanne Stewart said.