I’m old school!” laughs Jennifer Garza. She’s talking about her preference for face-to-face discussion even in today’s digital world. As a conversationalist, Garza is disarming and accessible — not what you’d expect from the CEO overseeing, 213 hospital beds at Edinburg Regional Medical Center, Edinburg Children’s Hospital and Edinburg Regional Rehab Center. Add her communication skills to a commitment to patient care, business savvy, and fifteen years of experience, and you’ve got the recipe for an excellent leader.
A Strong Start
Garza has been at the helm of Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital for over three years. The hospitals have seen major growth during her time as CEO, from small-scale improvements to the addition of a whole new department. “One of the first things Jennifer did was to build an obstetrics department,” says Garza’s colleague Lisa Killion. Garza says adding “The Women’s Corner” made Edinburg Regional Medical Center a true community hospital. “We were missing the chance to serve families by not delivering babies,” Garza recalls. “Now, the families we deliver will think of Edinburg Regional Medical Center as ‘their’ hospital and will also come back to Edinburg Children’s Hospital if their child needs care at a later time.”
Another of Garza’s early initiatives was simple, yet powerful: build strong relationships. She made it a point to spend time with hospital staff, getting to know them and letting them get to know her. “You can’t expect people to follow you just because you hold a certain title,” Garza explains. “Without employee buy-in, which comes from trust and respect, it’s hard to get anything done.”
Lessons in Leadership
Today, Garza continues the tradition of putting people first. She holds monthly town hall meetings where staff and physicians alike can participate in a hospital-wide conversation. Amazingly, she also holds a one-on-one “welcome” meeting with every new hire at Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital. “I meet with them to lay out our expectations,” she explains. “I think it helps to start off on the right foot.”
The CEO knows that good leadership is about more than special programming. Garza learned this during her training at Trinity University’s Masters in Healthcare Administration program and her stints as COO of two major hospitals in Houston, the Woman’s Hospital of Texas and St. Joseph’s Medical Center. “I watched many mentors strike this balance between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ leadership. They knew when to approach with a light hand and when to hold their ground.”
Garza strikes her own balance at the hospitals. She holds high expectations for all – especially when it comes to putting patients first – while remaining totally approachable. Take Garza’s philosophy on problem-solving: “Everyone knows that if you’re going to come to me with a problem, you should be ready to present a solution.” Far from deterring complaints, this practice has actually empowered hospital employees to think creatively. For instance, a nurse, noticing inconsistencies in how rooms were readied for patient arrival, proposed a solution to Garza: place a “patient-ready” checklist in every room, and ensure that all boxes are checked before the patient is admitted. “We got on that right away!” beams Garza.
Garza’s efforts are paying off. The hospital’s two emergency rooms – one for adults and one for children – treat over 44,000 people per year. Therapists at the inpatient rehabilitation unit, Edinburg Regional Rehab Center – what Garza calls the hospital’s “best kept secret” – provide specialty services that help patients severely debilitated by a stroke return to their highest level of independence. The hospitals, home to the only 3T MRI accessible to the community, are also leaders in innovation and technology. These and other advances make Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital integral parts of South Texas Health System. But of all the hospital’s accomplishments, Garza is most proud of her staff’s and the physician’s dedication to their patients. “Patient care is the common thread that unites us all.”
What’s Next for Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital?
Years of experience in hospital administration have taught Garza that healthcare is an ever-changing field. Each day brings medical discoveries, biotechnology breakthroughs, even new legislation. Garza’s job is to take all this information and tease out the parts that make sense for her hospitals. How does she do it? “I rely on my team a lot,” answers Garza. Together, she and her team have identified three major areas that will see change over the next few years.
First, the hospital plans to ramp up its focus on comprehensive healthcare. This means treating the whole person, not just his or her illness. Patients will increasingly see multidisciplinary teams of physicians – a shift from the current practice of seeing only one doctor per malady. For many, this means no more shuttling between specialists or juggling multiple treatment plans. It means being cared for by a team of professionals with a collaborative, comprehensive plan to heal disease and improve overall health.
“Overall health” is a key phrase to this new approach. Comprehensive healthcare emphasizes wellness – less “one pill morning and night” and more “green, leafy veggies and a 30-minute walk.” Garza explains the change: “We’re in the business of making people healthy, and research continues to show that your lifestyle – things like diet, exercise, and stress management – really matters. Of course, the hospitals will always be here for our acute care patients. But we’re also going to promote health outside our walls.”
Garza and her team are also moving forward on two other initiatives for the future. One is adding a robotics department complete with state-of-the-art equipment. Robotic surgery allows for precise, non-invasive surgery – often with a shorter recovery time – and is less physically taxing for the surgeon. The facility installed the first da Vinci® Xi surgical robotic system south of San Antonio. The da Vinci® Xi benefits patients with its capacity for performing complex surgical procedures.
Garza is also excited about increasing regional access to quality healthcare. South Texas Health System has opened two new stand-alone emergency rooms in Weslaco and Mission. For non-emergencies, Garza recommends the Valley Care Clinics’ (operated in cooperation with South Texas Health System) mobile treatment center. This “doctor’s office on wheels” travels throughout the Valley providing check-ups, shots, physicals, and other preventive and wellness healthcare procedures. Access to healthcare is a strategic focus for Garza. “No one should have to travel 30 miles for help in a medical emergency, or even for a regular check-up.”
Staying the Course for Patients
During her time as CEO, Jennifer Garza has established Edinburg Regional Medical Center and Edinburg Children’s Hospital as highly-regarded medical institutions in the South Texas healthcare community. Yet with all her accomplishments, she shows no sign of resting on her laurels. What motivates Garza to keep improving day in and day out? She explains: “Healthcare is personal. I always knew this, but I truly felt it when I became a mother. Giving birth and then bringing my kids in for care made me understand what a hospital is supposed to do. I remember that feeling whenever I see our patients. That’s what motivates me – I want those patients to feel informed, cared for, and safe, because that’s what a hospital is supposed to do.”
Her answer is fitting — it puts the patient first.