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Q&A: CareWell Health's New COO on Leading For Results

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   September 29, 2022

Rodemil "Rod" Fuentes, MHA, reflects on his leadership background and what he hopes to achieve in his role as COO.

Rodemil "Rod" Fuentes, MHA is the new COO for CareWell Health, an independent acute care hospital in East Orange New Jersey.

Following a two-decades-long career working in the U.S. Army and serving in healthcare both nationally and internationally, Fuentes has retired as a lieutenant colonel and took up his new role as COO in August to lead the system's rapid growth plans.

"Rod has proven himself to be a dynamic servant leader in healthcare settings around the world," Paige Dworak, president and CEO of CareWell Health, said in a statement announcing Fuentes' new role. "His ability to drive operational growth in a way that puts people first aligns perfectly with our mission—and will help ensure we continue to provide high-quality, accessible healthcare with respect as we expand our offerings to better serve our community. I could not be more excited to welcome him to the CareWell Health family."

In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Fuentes shared what his first month with the health system has looked like, reflects on his leadership background, and outlines what he hopes to achieve in his new role.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What has your first month looked like as you transition in your new role and how have you worked with Paige Dworak on the transition?

Rod Fuentes: It's been really great, to be honest with you. I've been pleasantly surprised by a lot of different things that go on here. I'm meeting a lot of the people who are motivated, want to get things done, [and] want the hospital to move in the right direction. They believe in the vision. I'm impressed.

I spent a lot of time the first week with [Dworak], talking to each other, getting to know [each other]. She walked me around to show me every square inch of the hospital and the other two buildings that we also occupy.

HL: How have your previous healthcare executive leadership roles and experience serving in the Army prepared you for this new role?

Fuentes: I started in military healthcare back in the summer of 2012, where I just finished the didactic phase of my master's in healthcare administration at Baylor University, and went to Walter Reed to do my residency there. I spent three years at Walter Reed; first year as a resident, and the other two years as the director of business decision support, working on the metrics quality, making sure that productivity measures were being met for every single clinic that we had, which at the time was 150 or so.

From there, I went on to Japan to be the COO out there of a smaller facility [in Kanagawa, Japan]. I would say half my job was COO of the facility and the other half was a lot of outreach with our counterparts in the Japanese military [and] with the Japanese healthcare systems over there and seeing how they operate, to maintain that alliance we have with Japan. They see how we operate, we go to all their different facilities and see how they operate, share ideas, and things like that.

After that, then I went to Kimbrough just south of Baltimore. And that was a COO role also for a small system. Kimbrough Health was a hub and it had five spokes, smaller clinics, that answer to it, plus a lot of other public health clinics.

From there, I went to Korea for one year and that's where I helped in closing one hospital that we had in Seoul, Korea, and opening up a new one on U.S. Army Garrison Camp Humphreys, which was about 60 miles south of Seoul. So closed on, opened another [with no impact to patient care], so not an easy task. Then COVID hit over there, and I dealt a lot with making sure that the COVID response plan was in place, making sure that we were setting up places where people can get PPE, and making sure testing procedures are good and making sure all that was in place, and kept the hospital running. We didn't shut down. [We worked with] with our Korean counterparts in making sure that they understood what we were doing, and we understood what they were doing in different areas.

 After things started getting a little bit better, I managed to leave after one year. They sent me to Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Northern Virginia, just outside the Washington, DC area where I was the COO. They're the largest community hospital in the DoD [Department of Defense] system.

The first half of my military career was all on the operational side of deployments, tanks, tactical training environments, and things like that, but all on the healthcare side. Going into the field; how do you do field medicine? How do you call in [an aircraft] come in or move ambulances around on the battlefield? Things like that.

That was pretty much my career, and I will say it had a huge impact on me, because it taught me how to use limited resources, how to deal with people of different cultures, different environments, in very stressful environments, how to act, and how to lead a lot of different people from different backgrounds, from different cultures and ethnicities, and how to lead to get things done.

HL: How does Korea and Japan's healthcare systems compare with ours?

Fuentes: When I say I was in Korea and Japan, I was on a military station on a military hospital, and it's pretty much US soil.

More specifically, to your question for Korean and Japanese hospitals, they're really on top of it. I would say they are very good, in some cases, probably better than us in certain regards. But it's a different culture environment. For example, you can't just go into Japanese hospital and expect care. They can say no. [Patients] understand they need to either have insurance ready or money available. Other than that, healthcare wise they're great. They're really on top of it.

HL: What drew you to work at CareWell?

Fuentes: I've been in the Military Health System for a long time and working in hospitals for 10 years. And for people who don't know, the Military Health System is a global network. It's everywhere; it's in Germany, Japan, Korea, it's all over the world. So, if something happens in Germany, we can find out about it, talk to them, and get lessons learned. Within that system, it's broken down into smaller systems until you get down to the individual hospital.

I got to experience what it's like to be in the system and at the same time, like in Japan, where it's one small hospital. When I was in Japan, Korea, even to some extent Fort Belvoir, where it's just the one hospital that provides support to the community, I liked the fact that we were left to operate how we needed to operate.

When I saw the CareWell position open up, it's a smaller hospital, it's not in a system. Being able to make decisions quicker, not having huge overhead and the huge political red tape that you have to go through in systems, and the most important part that we care a lot about the community. So that's really what drew me to CareWell within a smaller, community-based focus.

HL: What kind of pain points are you hoping to address in your first year as COO?

Fuentes: I want to make sure that our facility is top notch, and when people come here and they expect a certain level of care, I want to make sure that we give it to them. I want to make sure that we implement processes/procedures that makes sense for the patient to make sure that we're getting buy-in from the staff to make sure that what we're doing is the right thing. And making it the safest hospital in America.

HL: What are you most looking forward to in your first year as COO?

Fuentes: Meeting a lot of new people, learning the environment. And because it's a small facility, everything that we do for the community, I can see that almost immediately.

A lot of the projects that are starting or will start, I'll be able to see through to the end.

But mainly, it's what we're doing for the community and what we're doing for the patients. It's like an immediate feedback loop that I can see because it's a smaller facility. So that's what I would like to see within the first year.

HL: How will you be involved in CareWell's expansion plans?

Fuentes: The expansion plans are in the medical group, surgical, and behavioral health. Right now, I'm working with our behavioral health team and making sure that the area that they're going to be seeing patients has the proper number of rooms. I’m working with the constructions and facilities team to make sure that we get the proper contracts in place; that way they can come in and renovate the area to how they need to that's conducive for patient care.

For surgery, making sure that the surgical environment is clean, sterile, temperature and humidity is good, and making sure all of that is moving in the right direction.

And for the medical groups, we're in the middle to getting needs established. I want to make sure that I'm holding people accountable moving forward, so that everybody's doing what they need to do, so we can get there.

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“I want to make sure that our facility is top notch, and when people come here and they expect a certain level of care, I want to make sure that we give it to them.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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