Talking Shop with Steve Bjelich, CEO of Saint Francis Medical Center

Monday, February 22, 2010
Steven C. Bjelich is president and chief executive officer of Saint Francis Medical Center. (Fred Lynch)

Mention health care just about anywhere in the country and you'll likely get some sort of opinion on the subject. And Southeast Missouri is no different. With two major hospitals, health care is a major piece of the area's economic puzzle. Last week business reporter Brian Blackwell visited with Saint Francis Medical Center chief executive officer Steve Bjelich to learn his views about the industry as well as more about his success as a track star in college and life away from the hospital.

Q: You were a track star in college at Indiana University, where you were an All-American in 1975 and a Big Ten champion in 1976 as a member of the mile relay team. You also were an Indiana University letter winner in 1974, 1975 and 1976. Fill us in on what that was like for you to compete and have success.

A: Competing at a national level and earning All-American honors really has provided me a solid foundation for my career. The discipline behind athletics, I've channeled into my profession. Athletics also taught me the value of teamwork and leadership. We competed at a national and international level and we all had a similar goal, which was making the Olympic team in 1976. Anything worth doing is worth putting a significant effort into. You have to be completely focused and goal-oriented. I think you'll find most athletes are that way. That discipline has never been difficult for me, as both my parents were teachers and coaches.

Q: Your father, Steve, was the head track and basketball coach at a rival school. What was that like competing against his teams?

A: It was awesome. I hung out with many of his players in the summers. That rivalry particularly at that age was pretty intense. I wouldn't trade it though. Generally his teams pounded on us pretty good.

Q: One of your daughters is following in your footsteps. How do you feel as you watch her career progress?

A: I'm proud of both my daughters. My eldest daughter, Jennifer, is a project manager at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. I'm immensely proud of what she's done so far to prepare her for this profession. My other daughter, Danielle Bjelich, is a junior at Indiana State University with a desire one day to have her own marketing firm. Being a dad, it's awesome. It's an incredible feeling of pure joy.

Q: How different has life here been from Indiana and has your time here been what you expected?

A: The temperature is more temperate than outside Chicago and Northwest Indiana. It's very similar, too, in that we very much have a Midwest work ethic. The big difference is we have a Southern hospitality that you wouldn't typically see in a large metro area like Chicago. It's exceeded not only my expectations but many of the physicians we've been involved with recruiting to practice their profession here as well. It's an ideal location to raise a family, and the quality of medicine practiced here is at an extraordinary level. You have to have experienced medical care in a different location or environment to appreciate what we have here in Cape Girardeau and here at Saint Francis Medical Center.

Q: The hospital is undergoing construction for heart and cancer treatment facilities. How big are those projects compared to others in Saint Francis' history and how will they affect this area?

A: I believe you have to look at its impact and size [in comparison to] in all of Cape Girardeau. It's the largest private construction project in all of Cape Girardeau. Right now we have in excess of $100 million on construction underway. The Heart Hospital and Cancer Institute is all part of a comprehensive continuation of care for heart and cancer patients. This building been designed from the ground up by those who will provide care in that environment. We've had input from physicians, nurses and staff in all areas, so this will be a state-of-the-art facility.

Q: With the Massachusetts Senate race won by Republican Scott Brown in what many are calling a big upset, what affect, if any, will that have on health care reform?

A: Prior to Senator Brown's election the Democrats could get the reform bill through Congress without needing the Republican vote. Now the Republicans are in a position to filibuster. We still have a long way to go in reforming health care in this country. We believe it's important that patients have access to care in the most affordable and appropriate environment. We also feel it's essential to have access to primary care physicians and that we have an adequate number of nurses. And all should have coverage and access to health care services.

Q: Building on health care reform, are there solutions other than raising taxes to providing health care reform, such as some change in the insurance industry, individuals practicing a healthier lifestyle or companies offering incentives?

A: We are major proponents of employee wellness. People sometimes forget as the largest employer in the region we also have health insurance costs. We find that because health care employees have ready access to it that we tend to use it [more] than a traditional business. We're trying to keep our employees healthier [by providing] incentives to keep them healthy. That's good for them and their families and helps keep our health insurance premiums in check.

Q: Who have been your biggest motivators in life and why?

A: First and foremost my parents. They obviously shaped my early values and [instilled in me] the importance of a family and community. They also instilled discipline, both in the classroom and on the athletic fields. A second mentor would have been coach Sam Bell, who is a retired U.S. Olympic track and field coach and head coach at Indiana University. Coach Bell's inspiration really comes from those formulative years when you're away from home and transitioned from your early adult years into an adult and the responsibilities that come along with that. In track there is a great deal [of emphasis] on individual preparation but you're always part of a team. It's no different than what you have in health care management -- but you're part of a greater team.

Professionally, a third mentor is health care executive Dan Anderson, who taught me early in my career, when I was a very young vice president at 25, that it [goes] beyond the textbook knowledge of the profession and that it comes down to the people that deliver the care, provide support services, that channel all the technology into compassion. That's why the employees are so important to me. And a more recent mentor is Harry Rediger. Harry taught me the importance of community, community values and giving back to the community.

Q: What is your idea of a day away from the office?

A: My wife and I enjoy travel, playing golf together, fine dining and fine wines and also spending time with our daughters. If I spend time with my wife I really don't care what it is. The demands of the position are that if we get away, it's to relax.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

A: I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Saint Francis Medical Center family and a part of the Cape Girardeau community. To be a part of touching so many lives in what we do here at Saint Francis and the success we've seen and those yet to come is very rewarding. It's a great place to bring up a family and have a career. I truly feel blessed.

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