The big buy-in

An organization without a clear vision is like a ship without a rudder.
It is tossed about in an ocean of economic, technological and social turbulence, having little control over its own destiny. And without a captain who can rally the crew to buy in to a strategic direction, the ship drifts along on an uncharted course.
Tom Strauss values vision statements, believing them essential for survival. What is an organization’s reason for existence? The answer, he says, is the organization’s lifeline — and every affiliate must embrace that vision as their own raison d’tre.
Within minutes of meeting Strauss, people become excited about the vision he has for Summa Health System — Summit County’s No. 1 employer. As Summa’s new president and CEO, Strauss envisions “creating a system with such excellent quality and service that no one would want an insurance plan without Summa in it.”
Officially, the vision is that “Summa Health System will be recognized as one of the finest health care organizations in the United States and will be the preferred provider of health care services in our service area,” and the mission is “to provide the highest quality, compassionate care to our patients and to contribute to a healthier community.”
“When I came here from the Cleveland market and saw the quality of the physicians and the staff here, I was thrilled, and I wanted to take that excellence to the next level. So we worked on a new strategic three-year plan and created this vision and a mission,” Strauss says. “It’s been interesting how you put some words on paper, then get people to believe in it.”
And that, says Strauss, is crucial.
“It’s only when we are all committed to the vision that we all ‘own’ the results and work collectively for successful implementation,” he says.
Strauss, 49, began his career in a Pittsburgh pharmacy and gained management experience with American Hospital Supply. In 1989, he signed on as president of Meridia Health Services in Cleveland, and a decade later, joined Summa Health System as its COO. Since taking the helm when Al Gilbert retired as president and CEO in January 2000, Strauss has steered Summa toward its vision via his potent philosophy of servant leadership.”
“We must meet the needs and exceed the expectations of those we serve, our patients and our physicians,” says Strauss, “and if you are not serving a patient, you better be serving someone who is.”
As he talks, one realizes how passionately Strauss believes in the efficacy of this ideal, and why he wants all of the health system’s employees and affiliates to espouse the “servant leadership” standard — from the top brass down.
“The patient is why we exist in health care, so the patient is at the top of the organizational chart. I’m at the bottom, and it’s my job and those of the management and leadership teams to support those people that serve the patient.”
Strauss says it’s important to note that Summa Health System is one of Ohio’s largest integrated health systems, comprising Akron City, St. Thomas and Cuyahoga Falls General Hospitals, three community health centers, Summa Insurance Co. and SummaCare Health Plan, Akron City Health System and the Summa Foundation.
Every year, Summa’s health care professionals — numbering more than 4,200 full- and part-time employees, 1,305 physicians with admitting privileges and 235 residents and interns — provide care for more than 450,000 patients from Summit County and Northeast Ohio.
This results in more than 30,000 admissions, nearly 90,000 emergency room visits and more than 371,000 outpatient visits.
“Considering those numbers, the care we provide better be quality service, and it is the employees who can best offer advice on how to improve that care,” he says. “With that in mind, the leaders in an organization must be prepared to listen to, learn from and serve those they lead, because the goal is to remove unnecessary steps and barriers to providing quality service.”
A shared commitment
Proud with good reason, Strauss says Summa is acclaimed nationally for excellence in patient care and for exceptional approaches to health care delivery. For example, in 2001, for the fourth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Summa as one of America’s Best Hospitals — in 10 specialties.
Summa’s clinical services consistently earn high marks from It’s also the only health care organization in Akron to receive accreditation with commendation from the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, and the commercial and Medicare product lines of SummaCare Health Plan received the highest level of accreditation by the National Committee for Quality Assurance.
The system is recognized for its centers of excellence in cardiology, diabetes, emergency services, behavioral health, orthopedics, women’s health, oncology, ophthalmology, senior health and renal services.
“For a hospital like ours that doesn’t have much reputation scores, we’ve been able to achieve these kind of results, which is amazing,” Strauss says.
But it’s been a struggle to earn those marks while operating under very tight reimbursement constraints, says Strauss, referring to limitations of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 which have resulted in an estimated $220 billion reduction in health care reimbursements. The impact to Summa has been about $30 million a year, he says. But in 2000, the health care system broke even, becoming profitable in 2001.
“Close to 60 percent of all hospitals are losing money on operations, so we’re happy to say we’re past that,” Strauss says. “In fact, we did $6 million better this year than in 2001. We’ve been able to do that because of the culture of care and excellence that’s here, and the people who make us great.”
Patrice Lange, Summa’s vice president of planning and corporate support, says a primary reason for that excellence is Strauss’ commitment to helping employees reach their full potential. Strauss says he merely builds on the foundation of communication initiated by his predecessor.
“I really like to get out to the employees, and we do that in a number of ways,” Strauss says.
For example, in a monthly “Talk With Tom” lunch, the CEO meets with a group consisting of one person from every department, and the employees determine the agenda.
“I share the financials with them and we spend an hour-and-a-half just talking about what’s happening,” Strauss says. “It’s an open question-and-answer session that’s been very effective.”
Twice a year, Strauss also holds themed employee forums to discuss what’s happening.
“This year we tied into the Olympic spirit with a ‘Light the Fire Within’ theme. We made a video that talks about Summa’s history and Akron’s history, and we talked about the spirit of the Olympics, and about Butch Reynolds carrying that flame,” he gushes. “At the conclusion, we actually brought in Butch Reynolds wearing the Olympic uniform and carrying a torch. It was pretty powerful.”
Each month, Strauss also conducts an all-day group orientation for new employees — from custodians to nurses, secretaries to vice presidents. After spending the morning speaking about Summa’s mission, vision, organizational values and servant leadership, he gives each employee a card that reads “You are this hospital.”
“I feel it’s important to stress how our service and interaction with our patients is so critical, because everything we do and how we act in front of our patients actually represents Summa,” Strauss says. “How our employees accept that opportunity will determine whether we succeed or fail.”
Denise Hall, R.N., keeps that card with her in her duties as a staff nurse in Summa’s special care nursery. Hall, who recently relocated to Akron from Texas, says when she attended Strauss’ orientation in February, she came away with his vision for quality care.
“It’s not just a slogan — it’s something he’s very passionate about,” says Hall. “He’s obviously committed to doing the very best for each patient, and that made me want to do the same.”
More important, says Hall, is that what she’s seen in practice since she joined Summa backs up everything Strauss said during orientation.
“I’ve got eight years experience and yet I’m getting an excellent orientation here. They’re taking the time to be sure I know all the policies and protocols, all of them focused on what’s best for the baby,” says Hall. “The things you see and read about in research are in practice here. I’m impressed.”
Raising the bar
In the quest for excellence, Strauss has also raised the bar on Summa’s service line focus. That’s led to new offerings that Strauss says will be “the finest multidisciplinary interactive centers of excellence that Akron has ever seen.”
For example, this February, Summa broke ground for a heart center (cardiovascular and pulmonary) and a specialty women’s and men’s health center at the Akron City Hospital Campus. Scheduled for completion early next year, the two, four-story “Centers of Excellence” will each encompass about 80,000 square feet to provide prevention, wellness, diagnostic care, rehabilitative care and chronic disease management services.
“Patients will be able to visit physicians, obtain health education materials, access educational programming, undergo outpatient surgery or diagnostic treatment services and purchase retail products — all under one roof,” says Lange.
As Summa’s vision applies to the system’s financial picture, Strauss acknowledges the need to grow revenue and patient volume, to examine costs while maintaining bedside resources and to work with the medical staff to continue improving care delivery. The biggest difficulty is maintaining Summa’s mission amid significantly declining reimbursement and remaining committed to supporting people in need.
“We’ve gotten around that with a commitment to philanthropy, trying to raise money to support our mission,” Strauss says.
In the scheme of things, everyone must remain committed to the vision, he emphasizes.
“And I believe we are. Our people are exceptional, and we need to take all the positive pieces of our mission, our vision and our organizational values and go out into the marketplace to take back our leadership position.”
How to reach: Summa Health System, (330) 375-3000