July 16, 2018

Kyriacou prepares last act as Gaylord Specialty Healthcare's CEO

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
George Kyriacou has been president and CEO of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare since 2011, but he's retiring at the end of this year. He said his current job has served as the pinnacle of a long career in health care.

George Kyriacou

President and CEO, Gaylord Specialty Healthcare

Highest degree of education: Master's degree in public health, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Executive insights: "We're a believer in technology, but it only relates to how it makes a difference in a patient's recovery and outcome."

George Kyriacou never intended to get involved with the healthcare field.

When he started working as a secretary at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., in 1975, it was to pay his bills as he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His bachelor's degree was for urban planning.

But now, after more than 40 years in the field, culminating with his current position as president and chief executive of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, he struggles to think about what his life's focus will be after his retirement, effective Dec. 31.

"I think it's a combination of excitement … and trepidation," Kyriacou said on a recent afternoon at the hospital he's run since 2011. "You know, when you've spent your whole life working, and really dedicating your life to a profession, it gets a little scary."

As he prepares for his exit, Kyriacou sees his work at Gaylord — a 137-bed, long-term care hospital that opened its doors in 1902 as a tuberculosis sanatorium — as the pinnacle of a career spent in several healthcare system administrations.

For Kyriacou, the relationships forged between patients and staff at Gaylord is what really sets it apart from other hospitals he worked for throughout his career. Gaylord treats patients who have had major surgery but are still severely ill or injured. Gaylord patients stay for an average of 25 to 35 days, as opposed to most other hospitals, where patients typically leave within six days.

Kyriacou got his start in a support role at Baystate Medical Center while earning his master's degree in public health from UMass. He continued at that hospital as the administrative director of patient services, before taking a job at Hartford HealthCare, where he rose through the ranks, eventually to executive vice president of MidState Medical Center.

He took his first chief executive position at Hanover Hospital in Pennsylvania in 2008, but jumped at the opportunity to return to Connecticut in Nov. 2011, to take the corner-office job at Gaylord.

"I thought I understood Gaylord," Kyriacou said. "But it wasn't really until I came back and really started to meet patients, meet families, to see what we do every day that I really started to understand."

Previous hospitals Kyriacou worked for focused on fixing what was broken; Gaylord works to heal patients afterward. Those who suffer spinal-cord injuries, severe cardiac episodes, traumatic brain injury and a host of other conditions check into Gaylord after initial treatment for rehabilitation. The goal is to eventually send them home to live as independently as possible.

According to Gaylord's count, about 47 percent of its patients go directly home after their stay. And about 69 percent of patients on ventilators are weaned off the breathing machines. Many receive outpatient treatment there for years. The hospital records about 80,000 outpatient visits per year.

The ability to quantify outcomes comes from Kyriacou's hiring of data firm Watson Policy and Analysis a few years ago. It allows the hospital to internally track how its doing, and externally show results to prospective patients, insurers and regulators, he said.

"George was a breath of fresh air when he came to the organization seven years ago," Gaylord Chief Operating Officer Sonja LaBarbera said via email. Kyriacou has been a mentor, LaBarbera said, and the lessons he's taught her will come in handy when she takes over as CEO Jan. 1.

"He brought a new way of looking at things resulting in operational and cultural improvements for Gaylord," LaBarbera said.

Talent and technology

Technology has also been an area Kyriacou has pursued.

"We're a believer in technology, but it only relates to how it makes a difference in a patient's recovery and outcome," Kyriacou said. "What we focus on is the rehabilitation technology that really makes a difference in patients' lives."

That includes electronic exoskeleton leg supporters that allow people paralyzed from the waist or chest down to walk. Soon the hospital will roll out zero-gravity treadmills, which prop up patients with hip or leg injuries, and allow them to exercise their leg muscles.

But what he said he's most proud of is the staff buy-in his initiatives have received, and the talent he has brought on board. He's recruited a chief medical officer who previously served in that capacity at St. Mary's Hospital, and a chief nursing officer who worked in leadership positions at St. Vincent's Medical Center.

"What we've tried to do is recruit a leadership team that is going to take the organization to the next level," Kyriacou said. "I think that the average employee would be able to articulate the pride in the outcomes that we achieve."

Although Kyriacou says he's leaving Gaylord in capable hands, he'll still be there a couple days a week as a consultant.

"Luckily I won't be going cold turkey," he said.

Check out a video clip of George Kyriacou's interview at hartfordbusiness.com.

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