Steven Bjelich: Keeping a hospital healthy

Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Steve Bjelich, left, president and CEO of Saint Francis Medical Center, chatted with Dr. Billy Hammond, chief of cardiovascular services at Saint Francis. Both men were making the rounds: Bjelich visited his employees as Hammond visited his patients. (Fred Lynch)

A nursing shortage. Tort reform. Long-term health-care.

In addition to the formidable job of overseeing a 254-bed regional medical center and its 1,800 employees, Steve Bjelich knows running a hospital means you have to be well versed in a lot of issues.

And he is.

As president and CEO of Saint Francis Medical Center, Bjelich feels it's his duty. He can speak fluently on a broad range of health-care topics that are impacting not only those who work in health care, but those who rely on institutions like Saint Francis to keep them healthy.

"Saint Francis' mission is to provide a ministry of healing and wellness inspired by our Christian philosophy and values," Bjelich said. "As president and CEO, my job is to facilitate this mission by incorporating it into our strategic plans to provide the best patient care available. Ultimately, our employees bring that mission to life."

Bjelich took time out from his busy schedule recently to answer some questions for Business Today.

BT: I know it's early, but how is the partnership going with Landmark Hospital, the new long-term acute care hospital that Saint Francis is part owner of?

Bjelich: The partnership is going very well. Landmark Hospital has treated a number of patients since it opened earlier this spring. We already have already received positive feedback from families of patients treated at Landmark regarding the close proximity of the facility. Before Landmark, patients and their families had to drive to St. Louis or Memphis to be admitted to a long-term acute care facility. Not only does the existence of Landmark right here in Cape Girardeau allow family and friends the opportunity to drive across town to visit their loved ones, it also allows the patients' primary physicians to continue to care for their patients, offering consistency in treatment with a complete patient history. Looking to the future, the facility will be able to accommodate future expansion, adding up to 12 additional patient rooms as the need for this specialized medical care in the area grows.

BT: How's the renovation work going at the Medical Center? How's business at Fitness Plus?

Bjelich: We are always growing! Business at Fitness Plus is booming. Each month, we have 70 to 100 new members joining and it is not hard to see why. Our membership levels have far exceeded our budget. Fitness Plus, located in Saint Francis' Health and Wellness Center, houses the region's largest indoor track, a sport especially close to my heart. The facility has been rated the No. 1 Medical Fitness Center in the Country Open Less than Three Years by the Medical Fitness Association; and the building itself won an international award, the Nova7 Award for Facility Design, Construction and Decoration from Fitness Management magazine.

Also very important to the Health and Wellness Center are the physician offices housed within. We've been able to work with and relocate several of the area's major physicians practices into the Health and Wellness Center. It's a great patient benefit to have these practices on the Medical Center campus and is a tremendous convenience to the physicians who have relocated to the Saint Francis campus.

BT: Last October you announced an alliance with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. What has that meant to the hospital and the community?

Bjelich: It short, it means there is nationally recognized cancer care right here in Cape Girardeau and at Saint Francis. We are very excited to bring area patients evidence-based cancer care and treatment guidelines developed and directed by The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center's faculty. M. D. Anderson has ranked among the nation's top two cancer hospitals in U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Hospitals" survey for 16 consecutive years ... We have been working toward this affiliation for two years by conducting a thorough review of our operations, credentialing physicians, medical record review and orientation of physicians and staff. This affiliation furthers our commitment to bringing patients the most advanced cancer treatments.

BT: There's always talk about a nursing shortage in this country. Is that as severe as some think? If so, how has that impacted service at Saint Francis?

Bjelich: There is a national nursing shortage, and we feel that impact in Missouri as well. According to Missouri Hospital Association, the state of Missouri's vacancy rate for registered nurses is approximately 9.5 percent. Study after study shows improved patient outcomes and fewer medical errors occur when the patient-to-nurse ratio is higher. We are very proud of Saint Francis Medical Center's low turnover rate for registered nurses.

BT: What's the status of the medical office building in the Poplar Bluff Medical Park?

Bjelich: Saint Francis' relationship with Popular Bluff Medical Partners is outstanding. Saint Francis and Poplar Bluff Medical Partners are co-owners of a diagnostic imaging center and ambulatory surgery center located on the Poplar Bluff Medical Park campus, and several Saint Francis physicians hold clinics at the Medical Park. This relationship is great for patients in the Poplar Bluff area, and Saint Francis has seen a substantial increase in tertiary care or complex surgical case referrals as well.

The medical office building is moving along nicely. We have one-third of the concrete poured, stairwells to all four floors are almost complete and the elevator shaft is poured. We are anticipating the shell of the building will be completed by April 2007, and the entire construction project will take another year or so to complete after that. The final building will be four stories high, approximately 93,000 square feet, and will house physician offices offering both primary care and specialty services. Physician practices are showing a great deal of interest in the building as evidenced by the number of physicians who have committed to moving their Poplar Bluff office practices into that new building.

BT: You wrote an op-ed piece for the Southeast Missourian last year about President Bush's healthcare policy proposals and healthcare reform. Why the urge to write that? What are your thoughts on those policies today?

Bjelich: Healthcare is my passion; so naturally, I have a few thoughts and opinions on the subject. I stand by my thoughts in that op-ed and am happy to see some of the President's initiatives take root. Healthcare savings accounts are becoming more popular, saving consumers money while offering solid healthcare coverage. I'm disappointed by the Senate's block of the malpractice legislation in early May because I think those bills would have had substantial impact on capping judgments to patients and their attorneys, thus reducing the financial burden of physicians -- especially OB/GYNs -- for malpractice insurance. Fortunately, we have already taken the initiative in Missouri, with last year's passage of tort reform. Many, including the President, were also disappointed in this Senate vote, but I think this issue is far from over.

BT: Any relief in sight in regards to the rising costs of healthcare?

Bjelich: I believe consumers themselves have the power to reduce their healthcare costs by improving their lifestyle. Through a better diet, not smoking, increasing exercise and scheduling annual exams and screenings, Americans have the ability to improve their health dramatically. Saint Francis offers various screenings and educational classes to the public to aid in these areas, and we also built Fitness Plus -- a medically integrated health and fitness center -- to assist as well.

BT: Finally, what's the biggest healthcare issue facing Americans today, as you see it?

Bjelich: I would break this issue into two parts: the financial and physiological challenges facing consumers; and the nursing and physician shortage facing the country. As we talked about earlier, the rising cost of healthcare is an ongoing and ever-increasing burden to Americans, especially now that we are living longer than ever before. Programs such as tax-deductible health insurance premiums and healthcare savings accounts are heading in the right direction to keep costs under control; however, consumers themselves must make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve their health. For example, we know obesity is one of the biggest healthcare issues facing Americans today. Obesity leads to scores of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and countless others. I am proud of the positive impact Fitness Plus has made on our community -- it provides a means to curb this epidemic in the area.

The nursing and physician shortages in the country are another major issue. Hospitals can offer the latest technology and treatments, but they need the personnel to provide the hands-on patient care or it's all for naught. We value our medical staff experts and strive to create a rewarding environment for all Saint Francis employees.

Steven C. Bjelich

Age: 52

Position: president and CEO, Saint Francis Medical Center

Experience: 28 years of senior management healthcare experience. Prior to coming to Cape Girardeau, Bjelich was the president and chief executive officer at Saint Francis Healthcare Services in Wilmington, Del.

Education: Mercy Hospital, Miami, Fla.; Hospital Administrative Residency, 1978, Indiana University, Indianapolis, Ind.; School of Medicine, Masters in Health Administration, 1978 Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.; School of Business, Bachelors in Business, 1976

Personal: Wife, Lisa; daughters, Jennifer and Danielle

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