Erik Wexler shares insights into his new role, how he plans on leading Providence South through the pandemic, and what steps the health system needs to take to recover from the pandemic.
Providence St. Joseph Health announced in late January that Erik Wexler, the chief executive of Providence Southern California, will serve as president of operations and strategy of Providence South. In his new role, Wexler will be responsible for hospital operations in California, Texas, and New Mexico.
Wexler will continue to serve in both roles until Kevin Manemann, who currently serves as regional chief executive of physician enterprise, takes over as the new chief executive of Providence Southern California on March 1.
Since the promotion, Wexler released a statement about the ongoing lawsuit between Providence St. Joseph and Hoag Memorial Hospital, and the demurrer ruling issued on February 2, where he shared that the health system will "continue to vigorously defend against the lawsuit."
HealthLeaders recently caught up with Wexler about the hearing as well as his promotion, the details on his new role, how he plans to lead Providence South, and what steps the health system needs to take to recover from the pandemic.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HL: How will your new role as president of operations and strategy for Providence South differ from your previous role as CEO of Providence Southern California?
Erik Wexler: The way that [Providence CEO] Dr. [Rod] Hochman has organized the updated structure for our health system splits the organization in half. Lisa Vance is the president of operations and strategy for the north and I [lead] the south. This allows Lisa and I to spend more time with our colleague leaders in enhancing the delivery of care for those that we serve.
The biggest difference [in this new role] is I will be less focused on the detail of operations and on the design of strategy, and more focused on the bigger picture and how that relates to our health system. So [my role is] how we take our initiatives across the health system and cascade them in a fluid and collegial subsidiarity manner to each of our regions.
HL: What does the pandemic currently look like in California?
Wexler: We saw a surge in cases that was fairly catastrophic and came close to impacting the healthcare system in a way that would have forced rationalization of care. We did not get there, but we came close in California.
In southern California and northern California, [Providence has] focused on looking 10 exits down the highway, spending a considerable amount of time in being proactive before the most difficult issues present to us. This prepared us well for the surge.
As an example, we began to realize that as we saw more highly acute cases being admitted to our intensive care units, and our ICU was getting to over 100 percent capacity, that oxygen utilization would begin to be in the highest demand that perhaps the health system has ever experienced.
If O2 systems are not stabilized and replenished properly, you could get into a situation where you must cut back on O2 use or a system like that could fail. We took a proactive approach and brought in bulk oxygen and placed that strategically in southern California, so if one of our hospitals somehow lost or began to lose capacity, we could move that bulk O2 immediately to stabilize the system.
Another example is, as we began to see the surge, we knew we would have more people at the front door of our emergency departments. We had an early effort to put together a regional incident command center personnel pool. It had about 1,000 people that were in support services, regional jobs, and back-office functions that could be deployed to our various hospitals if there was a plethora of cases, for which they needed more staff. And that happened. We wound up using over 600 of those caregivers to help with admittance and environmental services.
I was deployed several times a week, at my own strong request and desire, where I served as an environmental service aide removing trash and dirty linen. This is the kind of augmented staff that made a big difference to be able to function efficiently through this crisis.
HL: What is your strategy to lead the southern region through the pandemic?
Wexler: When the crisis began a year ago, we, as a country, were learning how to treat these patients and how to increase our PPE to protect our patients as well as our caregivers. At that time, when we had 250 [COVID] patients across 13 hospitals, it was one of the most difficult times that we experienced in the past 12 months.
We went from 250 cases up to 1,800 cases only a couple months ago in our 13 hospitals in southern California. While it was extraordinarily difficult and we had to put a lot of those proactive measures in place that I spoke about, we were able to manage that crisis in a more experienced manner.
The most important thing for us right now is how we're going to recover from the pandemic because we know how to treat and manage COVID-19. Our caregivers are tired; they are emotionally drained and extremely stressed. Their families have suffered demonstrably through the commitment that these amazing caregivers, nurses, doctors, environmental service aides, pharmacists, medical record associates, security officers, and executives [have given].
What we need to do is begin to concentrate on what recovery looks like, even though it may be six months to a year down the road. There are three important aspects.
1. Mental well-being, which includes counseling services, access to mental wellness services.
2. Dedicated time away from work [as well as] disconnected and invested time with one's own loved ones.
3. How we reward and recognize our healthcare heroes as they come through this crisis so that their contributions are not forgotten.
Those are the next most important objectives for us as leaders.
HL: Beyond getting through the pandemic, what are some of your goals for the first year in this role?
Wexler: The most important goal for me is to get out to Texas, New Mexico, and northern California, and begin to understand the beautiful cultures that exist within those regions, get to know the leadership much better than I already do, and understand how I can ease their way as they work to advance the delivery of healthcare.
A couple weeks ago, I went to Texas and visited our ministries, hospitals, and leadership team there. It was an inspirational experience and allowed for me and my colleagues that are within that geography to begin to connect with one another and forge a relationship for the future.
The other thing that's going to be important is how I, Vance in the north, and our other most senior leaders within the system work to lock arms and execute on not only the innovation that we are committed to across Providence but to deliver on our promise of health for a better world. I can't think of a better, more experienced, and committed group of senior leaders in our health system to collaborate and deliver on the most important thing that we have done in our lives: keeping people well, healthy, and serving them at a scary time in their lives when they may not be well and they need us for survival.
HealthLeaders: Can you share your reaction to the recent demurrer hearing around Providence St. Joseph and Hoag Memorial Hospital's ongoing lawsuit?
Wexler: The demurrer is a process meant for a judge to decide whether a plaintiff should have their day in court. In this case, I don't think either party is surprised that the opportunity for Hoag to bring its case to a full judicial review is logical moving forward. It's important to note that the judge that reviewed this demurrer suggested that our own attorneys file an immediate appeal to his opinion and have a three-judge administrative panel do a double-check on his own opinion.
This is a rare occurrence and caught our attention because there may be something there that the judge agrees with from our perspective that negates the need for disaffiliation. In either case, we're prepared to vigorously defend the reasons why the affiliation is good for the residents of Orange County.
“What we need to do is begin to concentrate on what recovery looks like, even though it may be six months to a year down the road.”
— Erik Wexler, president of operations and strategy, Providence South
Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.
Photo credit: Orange, California/United States - 07/22/2020: An establishing sign on the side of a parking garage for the hospital known as St. Joseph Hospital. / Editorial credit: David Tonelson / Shutterstock.com
Earlier this year, Erik Wexler, who served as the chief executive of Providence Southern California, was promoted to president of operations and strategy of Providence South.
As a leader, Wexler has a strong philosophy around servant leadership, where he sees himself working for his colleagues, as opposed to his colleagues working for him.
Providence St. Joseph experienced an increase of COVID patients in its California hospitals, Wexler said, and handled the surge due to proactive strategic measures.
Wexler noted that there are “three important aspects" to moving past the pandemic: focus on mental well-being, dedicated time off for frontline workers, and staff recognition.