Lunch with Mimi: Kathleen L. Rhine, president and CEO of Mount Nittany Health
After a nationwide search, Kathleen L. Rhine became president and CEO of Mount Nittany Health in January 2017. With more than 25 years of serving in healthcare leadership, Rhine held executive positions at several hospitals and health systems, including the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she served as chief operating officer for two of its hospitals. She also served as regional president and CEO with Presence Health, based in Chicago, where she held other executive-level positions during her six years working there, including system chief administrative officer, system chief transformation officer, and system senior vice president, patient and family-centered care.
At Mount Nittany Health, Rhine serves to lead and inspire a team of dedicated healthcare professionals to deliver exceptional care to patients every time, without exception and to continue to fulfill the hospital’s mission to make people healthier.
Rhine earned her Bachelor of Science degree in health planning and administration from Penn State. She earned her Master of Business Administration from Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Rhine at Duffy’s Tavern to discuss her return to Happy Valley, the collaboration relationship between Mount Nittany Health and Penn State Health, and the hospital’s future plans for serving the community.
Mimi: About two years ago at this time of the year, I know you arrived because it was my pleasure to get a group of women together to meet you when you first came, and I just want to know, did that have any benefit in terms of getting to know the community, which was my goal at the time?
Kathleen: Well, let me first say thank you again for doing that, Mimi. It was a wonderful surprise to me when you offered to introduce to so many of your friends. And yes, not only did I have a wonderful time, I also made important connections with about 35 or 40 of your closest friends. I learned right away that friends of Mimi’s are good people, who are engaged in the community and willing to collaborate on important issues. I’ve appreciated the warm welcome I’ve received in this community and you were certainly one of people who were a part of that.
Mimi: Well, a lot of us work hard for community; you're one of them and I’m one of them. Let's talk a little bit about what drew you back to this community and this hospital.
Kathleen: Even as I walk around the campus and community now, I can’t help but to think about the first time I set my foot on the campus as a senior in high school, exploring where I would go to college. I don't know how to describe it, but when I came to the Penn State campus, I just felt at home. From the students I met, the academic and athletic atmosphere, as well as the beauty of the mountains and the campus, there was something about it that just really made me want to be here. So, I was happy to be accepted and then spent four very happy years here. I like to say that we don't call it Happy Valley for nothing. And so, when an opportunity to come back arose, coupled with an opportunity to provide leadership at a place with the stature, reputation, and the importance to the community of Mount Nittany Health, it was somewhat of a no-brainer.
Mimi: Well, you have two years under your belt. What's the change perhaps that you've introduced that you’re proudest of?
Kathleen: In many ways, my role has been about being sure that we strengthen and sustain what's important to the community and to our physicians and staff. One of the things I've learned is how important healthcare is to everybody who lives here. People stop me all the time because they'll recognize me and want to tell me about what Mount Nittany Health has meant in their lives. They might tell me about an incident that happened as recently as last week, or even years ago. What they want to tell me is what it means to them to have access to high-quality healthcare services with the compassionate service the Mount Nittany staff are known for in this community.
And so, really understanding and honoring that has been about getting to know the people who helped build the health system and who continue to make us successful. The physicians, our staff, our collaborative partners and the remarkable community members who serve on our boards have been part of building Mount Nittany Health. So, in many ways, it's been about understanding the fabric of relationships and collaborations that make us what we are and looking for ways to continuously improve quality, access and affordability, as healthcare grows and changes.
Mimi: What has been your biggest challenge?
Kathleen: I would just say that the number of people, initiatives, the pace of change, and wanting to learn and try to balance all of that. The people who work in healthcare are remarkable. The skill, passion, commitment and caring are truly inspiring even in the most challenging of circumstances.
When I think about the challenges that patients and families are facing and about what is at stake for them and for our community when people need healthcare, it helps me to put my challenges in perspective and to see them as opportunities to serve. Having been a patient myself and a family member of patients battling disease, as I know you have Mimi, has really shaped my perspective. And is the reason I still love what I do after all of these years.
Mimi: In my mind, one of the challenges is, how does the community hospital live comfortably with Penn State Health? How do they remain separate? Is there a merger in the near future? It appears to me that healthcare's swinging toward bigger is better and we're sitting with two very good organizations quite different from one another. What does the future look like in the coexistence of Penn State Health and Mount Nittany Health?
Kathleen: There are so many ways that we've collaborated with Penn State and with others over the years. I like to say we are an interdependent health system that values collaboration as a way to improve services for our community. And probably the most notable example is the development of the University Park Regional Campus – Penn State College of Medicine.
Mimi: And the Cancer Institute.
Kathleen: The Cancer Institute would be another example. So, I would say we both have educational and clinical collaborations with Penn State. We're in our fourth year of the Penn State Health Family and Community Medicine Residency at Mount Nittany Medical Center. We now have 18 family medicine residents. We graduated our first class of six residents last year, which was exciting. We are also now beginning to offer a four-year medical school here, with 12 in each class. So eventually, 48 undergraduate medical students will be attending medical school here in a really innovative program. All that's possible because of the strength of our two organizations and our commitment to work together.
While collaboration is the often is the best way to get things done, it's not always the easiest and fastest way to get things done. But it's really proved in so many of our community collaborations, to be something that served both organizations and the community well. I think that's part of the recipe for success, finding things that allow both of us to achieve our missions and to make the community better for the people that live here.
Mimi: It's nice to feel that whatever happens will be the best thing for everybody involved. And that's a tough call.
Kathleen: It helps to look at it from the perspective of how to best achieve our mission of improving the health of the community. Our roots are here and so is our future. We go to work every morning thinking about healthcare for people who live and work here and about how we can advance and improve.
Mimi: Based on my past experience, I believe it is working well with them being separate entities. However, when you see the trend nationally, there have to be thoughts on both sides of this equation. If we were to do that, how would we do it?
Kathleen: First and foremost, we're governed by a community board and on their minds is what best serves the community. Any program or collaboration is evaluated through the lens of how it would help us best serve the community. Penn State, both the university and Penn State Health, are among our partners in that. We see ourselves as interdependent, collaborating with independent physicians, insurers, community groups, and other healthcare providers. It is the expectation of our board and leadership team that we are going to continue to work well with those who share a common vision for this community.
Mimi: Does Mount Nittany have service offices outside of the county?
Kathleen: We do. Part of the growth of Mount Nittany is really the ongoing evolution from a community hospital to a regional health system. The Mount Nittany Physician Group is now over 160 providers and cares for more than 110,000 patients. It's a very large multi-specialty group both here in Centre County and in the region. We have expanded our services in Penns Valley and opened a new location in Philipsburg. We have also developed a very busy primary care and specialty location in Mifflin County. So, increasingly our reach to people in our region is through our Mount Nittany Physician Group and those practices.
Mimi: Is Tyrone a possible place also?
Kathleen: We certainly have collaborations in the Tyrone area, as well, bringing specialty care to that community with our Mount Nittany Physician Group cardiology and urology offices at the Pinecroft Medical Center, located near Altoona.
Mimi: Because it does seem to be the path of the health system.
Kathleen: And certainly, of collaborating with others and looking to what we can do better in our communities, too.
Mimi: What, in your opinion, is the biggest reason that Mount Nittany Health remains single and successful?
Kathleen: There are three main reasons I believe we are successful. First and foremost, we focus on our patients as the center of everything we do. Our community can rely on us for exceptional care. We are proud to be recognized for our results, whether it’s patient satisfaction scores, quality scores, accreditations, or patient safety.
Second, but equally important, is that we are focused on safety. We start each day with a patient safety huddle with leaders from across the health system to review operations advice on any current or potential issues that could affect service or safety. This has become an important forum for building teamwork and communication across the organization. It is also a time when we recognize staff members and the steps they’ve taken to ensure patients are safe and well cared for.
Finally, and also very important, is the quality of our team. Our people are truly what make Mount Nittany Health a special place. We believe in and invest in our people, and that’s what allows us to attract and keep top doctors and other healthcare professionals who choose to practice with us. We are committed to creating an environment based on respect and one that encourages personal and professional growth, with resources and training to uphold the highest standards of patient care and service.
Mimi: In our area, community means a lot. In what ways – beyond providing quality healthcare for patients – do you feel Mount Nittany Health serves our community and its residents?
Kathleen: Mount Nittany Health is a truly community asset. We employ more than 2,800 staff, have medical staff of more than 350 physicians and providers and are supported by more than 600 community volunteers. We have re-invested nearly $250 million into our community in recent years with projects such as the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion, Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County, a new emergency department, new and expanded surgical suites, new or expanded medical group offices and a corporate services facility in Bellefonte. We’ve grown our radiation oncology department and added a second linear accelerator to better meet the needs of those in our region.
I’m also proud to say that we collaborate with and provide support to more than 50 local organizations in our efforts to address key community health needs and promote wellness.
Mimi: What do you see as the future of Mount Nittany Health?
Kathleen: We have plans to continue to grow, investing in our physician group and medical center facilities in the next three to five years. We’re scheduled to open our new 26,000-square-foot cardiovascular pavilion this fall with the help of more than $4 million in community philanthropic support. We will also be updating our women & children’s services unit, which is often a place people get a first impression of the medical center. We have plans to update our laboratory, patient rooms, kitchen and dining spaces, first floor and our behavioral health unit. We are also in the process of making a significant investment to implement a single electronic health record across the system, which will include an enhanced patient portal.
Mimi: I want to thank you.
Kathleen: Thank you, Mimi.