Laurie Harting ’90, CEO of Dignity Health, Sacramento division, spoke with KESQ news producer Evan Sanford ’17 (of "Inside the Studio with Evan Sanford”) on April 28, as part of the University’s Alumni & Community Relations virtual “Bulldog Bites” lunchtime interviews. The conversation, excerpted below, ranged from the impact of the coronavirus on the health care system to her experience as an MBA student at the U of R.
Evan Sanford: How are you doing during this pandemic situation? How are you holding up?
Laurie Harting: It has been the busiest time of my career. I’m well, but it has been quite a journey.
Sanford: How is Dignity Health faring during this time?
Harting: All of our six hospitals in the Sacramento division have been tremendously impacted. When COVID started, patients began arriving. We were watching New York City closely and were fearful that we would have a surge like that. California Governor Newsom was proactive in making sure we shut everything down quickly so we have not seen the same kind of surge as New York, but we've still been very busy. Some of our markets are busier than others; Los Angeles, for example, has been hit quite hard. But, in Northern California, we've been able to manage well. As a result of the pandemic, we have not been able to do as many surgical cases—all elective cases have been canceled—and those surgeries generate revenue, which is a challenge.
Sanford: Healthcare workers have been testing positive in high numbers because of their exposure to coronavirus, and some are protesting for more personal protective equipment. What steps are you taking to provide a safe working environment for your employees?
Harting: The pandemic started in China, which is the main producer of surgical equipment and supplies. When workers there stopped producing supplies, that had an impact on our entire nation. We are still feeling that impact, but it's opening up now and we're starting to get shipments. We've been fortunate to have a lot of good contacts with vendors, both local and national and international. We also have taken precautions to ensure our employees are prepared and understand how to properly use the equipment so there’s less chance of contamination. I'm proud to say we have only had three employees who have tested positive to date after six weeks of treating many COVID-19 patients. Two of the three have fully recovered; the third is still in recovery.
Sanford: Are people who need to go to the hospital for other reasons afraid to get care?
Harting: You turn on any news channel, and it’s all about COVID-19. So of course, there’s a level of fear about going into any hospital, and we have seen our emergency room volumes drop considerably. That's actually worrisome because people are staying home and maybe getting sicker, so that, when they do come to the hospital, it's more complicated than if they had come earlier. I want to make sure people get the message they need to continue to take care of themselves and continue to reach out to their physicians. If you have chest pain, and you think it could be cardiac-related, come to the emergency department! We screen everybody before they enter the building and group the COVID-19 patients away from everybody else, so it is safe.
Sanford: Although so many have suffered during this pandemic, there has also been a tremendous amount of support from the community eager to help those frontline health care workers. What generous offers have you received?
Harting: Every week, each one of our hospitals is getting free food from a restaurant as a donation to our staff. Signs are being erected on the gardens and grounds of the hospitals thanking the “Health Care Heroes.” Early on, when we had news about the shortage of masks, we had sewing bees. Women who were volunteering came together, bought material, and made all sorts of masks for our staff; while not for medical use, they were O.K. for wearing to walk around. It is heartwarming to see the great support we're getting from the entire community. The morale of our healthcare providers is better than it has been in months, because they're proud of the care they’re providing.
Sanford: Let's turn to your time at Redlands now. How did you end up at the University of Redlands, and how did your education help your career?
Harting: As I was looking at my career trajectory, I knew I needed to have a master's degree if I wanted to move into an administrative role. At the time, I was an ICU bedside nurse. I had to make a decision—did I want an MSN so I could pursue the nursing leadership track, or did I want to take the MBA route? I consciously chose the MBA. I knew that, as a nurse, I needed to sit across from the CFO and be able to speak his language to articulate exactly what I needed—and it worked. The meshing of those two skillsets has really positioned me to be in the place where I am now.
The Whitehead [now School of Business] program at the University allowed for working adults to continue with their education. Redlands has a very good reputation, and, since I lived 10 minutes away, it was convenient. But it was tough—I was a single parent of two children in an administrative job and going to school, so it was a lot to balance. At times, I thought I needed to pause and finish my degree later, but I stuck with it because I knew this was important for my future career. There’s no way I could have ever moved into the leadership role I have without that education. It truly opened many doors.