Dayton Children’s Hospital president and CEO Deborah Feldman thrives at the intersection of complex challenge and human potential. As the leader of one of the leading children’s hospitals in the country, Deborah manages thousands of staff, tens of thousands of annual patients, capital expenditure, strategic planning, patient experience and much more.

Upon joining Dayton Children’s in 2012, Deborah led the creation of a new strategic roadmap to guide the hospital into the rapidly changing future of healthcare. This plan, called Destination 2020, outlines a framework for ensuring Dayton Children’s continues to grow and thrive while remaining true to its founders’ original mission – to provide the highest quality care to all children regardless of a family’s ability to pay. Destination 2020 involves a campus-wide revitalization, services expansion in key areas, recruitment of highly specialized pediatric experts, and the integration of advanced technology – all in a uniquely family-centered setting.

Deborah took a few moments to talk with us recently about her role, pediatric health at large, her vision for the future, and more.

Your career arc is somewhat unique in that you’re the President and CEO of a health system, but most of your background isn’t strictly in healthcare. How has that shaped how you do your job today?
I think my career arc helps me. Having not worked in healthcare previously, I’m not wired to think, “Well this is how we’ve always done it.” I think it makes me more inclined to challenge precedents and assumptions that can lead to new ideas. Healthcare is moving and evolving at such a rapid pace that having an open mind can be helpful.

Plus, I’m from the Dayton area, so having that hometown knowledge of the local market has been invaluable. I also have extensive experience managing large teams and complex departments, which is such an integral part of what I’m doing today at Dayton Children’s; without that experience, my current role would have been a more challenging undertaking.

How do you encourage your team and the organization to think beyond the status quo?
I challenge my team to be much more community-focused. We are taking what we do outside the walls of the hospital and into our backyard and beyond by collaborating with several new partners. Rather than being viewed narrowly as a place where sick children can recover, we can be seen as an organization that helps children live healthy each day.

A strong example of this is our partnership with the Hope Center for Families, which empowers lower-income members of the Dayton community with work, life and personal skills. We are a partner along with Montgomery County, Sinclair College, Miami Valley Urban League and Mini University. The Hope Center’s facility will bring all of these different components into one space: a pediatric clinic, a workforce training center, and an early learning center. It’s a place to promote health and wellness for all generations, and a leadership moment for us, because it’s the kind of initiative very few children’s hospitals are launching right now.

What are some of the biggest disruptions in pediatric healthcare right now?
There’s many, but let’s focus on three:

First, there’s a major movement right now to outpatient and home care, which is challenging in that it requires us to both think differently and create entirely new types of care spaces. We also need to carefully study how we’ll be paid for these services. For example, when it comes to a hospital-based infusion procedure, we’re reimbursed very little or not at all. But if we do those same infusions in an outpatient setting, we’ll be paid for it. That forces us to think whether we need outpatient infusion centers—it’s not something we’ve needed in the past.

Second, consumerism is also growing as more of our parents are of the millennial era. These parents are embracing all things digital and want things immediately, so consumerism resonates even more with them. These parents are open to virtual care, but will also seek out specialized care on their own rather than just heading to a pediatrician in their community. They’ll ask their Facebook friends for recommendations. Millennial parents also have a lack of loyalty – if they’re not happy with the care they’re getting, they’ll go elsewhere. How are we going to respond?

Lastly, a huge growth area is in pediatric behavioral health services, which is driven by a dramatic rise in teenagers with anxiety and mood disorders. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that more than 20% of children ages 13 to 18 experience a severe mental illness at some point during their life, and the number is 13% for those ages 8 to 15. How are we going to help these patients?

Our team is focused on these leading disruptions and creating future-focused solutions to them.

Five years from now, what pediatric health challenge do you hope has seen significant improvements?
I referenced pediatric behavioral health, and I really hope our collective national health system is better addressing that need, and I’d love for Dayton to be leading the charge. Right now, it’s the biggest demand of resources, and it’s challenging to keep up with the need. We need to find a better way to address this and help more children.

I also hope we’re doing more to help the rising number of children with asthma and pulmonary disorder cases. It’s the No. 1 reason for admissions at Dayton Children’s. Asthma wreaks havoc on a child’s ability to attend school regularly and live their lives without disruption. So much of treatment in the past has been ‘Did I take my inhaler,’ but it’s much more than that. Managing asthma and other pulmonary illnesses involves thinking about where the child lives, what environments they’re in consistently, do they have access to clean, quality air? We need to be thinking bigger picture for this issue.

What technologies do you think will drive the most positive impacts on patient experience moving forward?
Technology is a huge driver. When we opened our new tower, we implemented 13 new technologies. One was a tube system that lets nurses transport narcotics via fingerprint technology – for the patient, this means children can receive the medication they need, often for pain relief, faster.

From a consumer standpoint, the more we can start using digital communication more effectively, the better the experience will be, especially for our millennial parents. We can use this to communicate medical records, test results, schedule appointments – we’re trying to integrate MyKidsChart and “save your spot” technology as much as we can. Our millennial parents don’t want to talk on the phone, and they also don’t want to wait, so this technology will continue to have a big impact.

We often hear healthcare organizations are only as good as their staff (talent). How does Dayton Children’s focus on bolstering recruit and retain?
The No. 1 recruitment strategy for us is strong employee engagement. The best way to recruit is by not having to in the first place. If you have great staff who are staying, then you are bringing in new people strategically through word of mouth who want to be there. You want staff saying, “I’m going to do the best I can do every day,” and knowing they have a supportive team and organization behind them. Staff need to feel they can grow in the job. I’m proud that we’re in the 95th percentile for staff engagement and have very low staff turnover.

You’re a highly accomplished leader who has shown a clear commitment to your community. What motivates you every day?
First and foremost, it is making a difference in our community and the lives of families and the children we serve. When I left my last role, I knew I needed to pick a place where the work made a difference of this magnitude.

Secondary to that motivation, I also love leading complex organizations and seeing the team tackle big challenges and achieving great results. If in the end, we’re making the community and people’s lives better, then we’ve all done our jobs.

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