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January 11, 2021 5 to Watch 2021

Amid pandemic, new St. Francis President Burke keeps his focus on caring for caregivers

Thomas Burke

Imagine getting your dream job as a hospital president ‒ right in the middle of a major pandemic.

That was Thomas Burke’s experience when he was named interim president of Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in May 2020.

“Jumping in during the pandemic ‒ it was certainly a time to be a little bit anxious,” Burke said. He added: “It certainly was a great opportunity to come in and show that I prepared myself to lead the organization in a time of crisis.”

Burke’s interim leadership at St. Francis as the COVID-19 crisis evolved over the summer and fall led to him being named permanent president on Nov. 13.

“He rose to the occasion and proved his ability to lead with enthusiasm and with the utmost respect for every one of our colleagues and members of our medical staff,” said Reginald Eadie, president and CEO of the hospital’s parent company, Trinity Health of New England.

That enthusiasm and respect should help sustain Burke as St. Francis and other state hospitals grapple with the economic impact of the pandemic in the months and years ahead.

The Michigan-based parent company of Trinity Health of New England said it expected a $2 billion drop in revenue systemwide in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis. The company started announcing layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in June, with some layoffs happening at St. Francis.

St. Francis is one of 93 hospitals in the Trinity system and one of four in the company’s New England region.

Burke said that pandemic losses had been offset at St. Francis by “right-sizing” and the return of surgical volume to slightly above pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020. No layoffs are expected at the hospital in the coming months, he said.

St. Francis also received $40.6 million in federal pandemic aid early in the crisis to help make up for shortfalls. A strategic decision by Trinity Health to secure credit early in the pandemic also allowed the system to buy needed safety equipment, set up COVID-19 testing sites and accelerate the move to virtual care.

“The pandemic is a challenge. But I think we’re in a great position to move forward,” Burke said.

High expectations

The role of hospital president had long been a goal for Burke, who started his career as a clinical pharmacist in Philadelphia. He quickly moved into administrative roles with the help of some key mentors and honed his management skills at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Penn., also part of the Trinity network.

Burke came to Connecticut in 2012 to take the job of vice president of operations at Waterbury Hospital as it began the process that led to it being acquired by for-profit Prospect Medical Holdings. He then went to work in a national executive role at Prospect’s California headquarters but tired of the constant travel. Then a job at St. Francis in Hartford opened up.

“I was drawn to work with [Trinity] again,” Burke said. Being part of a national hospital group offers many advantages, he added, principally access to senior hospital administrators across the country.

“I can’t state enough how much of an advantage that is ... you can pick up the phone and call a number of other executives in other markets and just ask them for advice. That’s very, very powerful,” Burke said.

Trinity’s culture was also appealing, he added, rooted in the system’s philanthropic and religious foundations. That culture is particularly strong at St. Francis, he said.

Caring for caregivers

As president of St. Francis, Burke has drawn on the hospital’s spiritual resources to face what he said is his most pressing concern ‒ the toll of the pandemic on the hospital staff.

“I think the biggest challenge going forward ... is ensuring that our colleagues, our providers, remain healthy, both mentally and physically. It’s caring for the caregivers,” Burke said. He has expanded mental health resources for employees and encouraged adoption of “resiliency rounds,” meditation apps and efforts incorporating the Pastoral Care staff.

Once a week he meets with a different hospital department to check in and listen to staff members’ concerns. Like the rest of the community, St. Francis workers are anxious about their own health, child care, the jobs of their loved ones and other issues around the unfolding pandemic.

“There’s so much uncertainty out there,” Burke said.

Changing campus

The pandemic will have a lasting impact on Trinity Health of New England’s operations, Burke said, accelerating some trends and introducing new ones. Virtual health, also known as telehealth, was embraced by the system at the start of the crisis despite relatively little previous use of the technology.

“Virtual care is going to be huge; we are going to seize on that opportunity,” Burke said. St. Francis and other Trinity hospitals are hiring “virtualists,” physicians who specialize in care via videoconferencing tools, and redesigning facilities and adding remote-monitoring technology to allow for more effective virtual care.

“We think we can be best in class in virtual care,” Burke said. “That will change the way the campus looks over the next few years.”

Outpatient surgery is another trend affecting the hospital’s footprint: St. Francis cut the ribbon on a new $26.5 million outpatient orthopedic and spine surgery center last January. The facility, called the Lighthouse Surgery Center, was a major expansion on the hospital’s Hartford campus done in partnership with a group of physicians.

Other physical changes in the works include more off-campus facilities to bring St. Francis providers into nearby cities and towns.

Trinity in early January opened an ambulatory center in Rocky Hill to provide primary care, specialty care and imaging. In addition, the system intends to submit a strategic plan on new ambulatory care facilities to the state in early 2021.

“We want to bring the high-quality care that St. Francis provides out into the community,” Burke said.

Looking ahead to 2021, Burke said he thinks the lessons he learned from his months as interim president will serve him well. His actions were always taken with the concerns of the hospital staff and patients in mind.

“The challenges are always changing,” Burke said. “We need to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the community as they change.”

This profile is part of HBJ’s 5 to Watch in 2021 special feature. Click here to see other top leaders we expect to make headlines in the year ahead.

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