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September 26, 2016 Executive Profile

Barwis infuses startup culture at Bristol Hospital

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns Kurt Barwis helped turn around the financially strapped Bristol Hospital but he continues to face a tough industry environment.

Kurt Barwis was an aspiring artist who loved to paint, draw and sculpt in high school, but interning as a messenger for a law firm active in entertainment exposed him to other possibilities. He met noted musicians, ran errands in a law partner's Porsche and saw a different side of life.

“It was a lot of excitement and I got a taste of a different world,” said Barwis, president and CEO of Bristol Hospital since 2006. “That experience was very informative for me.”

Uncertain about a career, his mother, a nurse, advised him to get a job at the local hospital as he pondered his path. He worked in radiology patient transport.

“You learn a lot when you travel around the floors,” said Barwis, 58. “The perspective of understanding the organization is much different.”

He saw that “no matter where you are in this kind of a facility, you're helping people get better and it's kind of a calling.”

He got hooked on hospitals — and hitched. He spied his future wife when the dietary aide flashed a smile while pushing a food cart as he transported a patient. Barwis was determined to meet her. He did, beginning a hospital romance. He and Jean married 32 years ago and have two grown children, 27 and 24.

Barwis migrated into the hospital business office, working while studying for his accounting degree at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School before joining Coopers & Lybrand auditing hospitals and banks.

He returned to hospitals as director of patient resources for a Philadelphia facility, then ventured into executive roles with medical equipment and device companies, including a stint as VP of finance and COO for a startup. “It was a lot of fun because to work in an early stage environment … it's a singular goal and you count on each other to really get to the next milestone,” he said. “That was eye-opening for me.”

Barwis returned to hospitals in 1998, as system vice president-managed care and business development in Elkton, Md., in between getting his MBA in 1997 and CPA in 1999. He got the bug to run a hospital. “I always thought I'd be a wingman, I was a happy doing that,” Barwis said, but he envisioned infusing elements of startup culture into a community hospital.

First, to broaden his experience, he became senior VP and COO of a Leonardtown, Md., hospital in 2003.

When the Bristol job opened in 2006, the hospital had a $9.4 million operating loss, but Barwis applied his finance experience and launched a turnaround. The hospital had a $533,000 operating gain in fiscal 2015.

“I would never take personal credit for anything because it's always a team that does it,” Barwis said. He believes leadership should be selfless. He likes shared governance and robust debate among his executive team before decisions.

Barwis, who sits on the state Health Care Cabinet weighing healthcare reform, continues seeking improvements, including consolidating about a dozen departments in a proposed medical office building in downtown Bristol to benefit the hospital and patients.

The hospital also maintains a network affiliation agreement with Yale New Haven Health System, benefiting Bristol with supply savings and some shared services. It plans to join Yale's accountable care organization for additional benefits.

Donna Galluzzo, president of Corridor, a national revenue cycle management and consulting firm for nonacute health care, has known Barwis since he arrived.

“I've been in the healthcare industry for over 30 years and there are very few individuals who I have met who have that rare combination of incredible intellect with strong heart — and Kurt combines both of those beautifully,” Galluzzo said.

“I see Kurt as a David in a field of Goliaths,” she said of Bristol remaining small, but mighty, in a consolidating industry. It has attracted top staff because of its culture, Galluzzo added.

Away from work, Barwis is a big-time Philadelphia Eagles fan. He also finds therapy in travel, including to third-world countries. “It's eye-opening when you realize what you really don't need to live,” he said.


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