Community focus yields turnaround at W. Side hospital

Guy Medaglia outside St. Anthony Hospital | Credit: Geoff Dougherty
  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • August 20, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

At St. Anthony Hospital, a West Side fixture for more than 100 years, a stoic statue of the building’s namesake peacefully gazes past a valet parking stand towards Douglas Park. The popular barbecue pit smolders and valets triple-park cars in a clustered lot.

But it wasn’t long ago that it was empty, bleeding money and ignored by community members.

Parishioners of Rev. Steven Spiller’s Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church thought “that it was primarily a hospital for the Latino community,” Spiller says. But Hispanics thought St. Anthony served the African-American community. The misconceptions meant that neither community looked to St. Anthony for help.

“Some people weren’t aware that it was even there,” Spiller says.

That was before Guy Medaglia took over as CEO in November 2007. St. Anthony had completed a year in which it lost $3 million, and the hospital’s corporate owner, Ascension Healthcare, asked Medaglia to come on board for eight weeks to attempt to stabilize it.

“We started to do an informal assessment as to why this hospital was losing money,” says Medaglia, who doubles as a consultant with FTI Healthcare, and specializes in turning around failing hospitals.

Medaglia wanted to find out why the hospital was struggling. He enlisted his colleagues and set out into the community, going to churches, meetings and other community events to diagnose the problem.

“The first thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘Is it fulfilling its mission within the community? Is it doing what it’s supposed to be doing?’” he says.

Medaglia and his colleagues had to swallow some tough medicine.

“‘It just didn’t seem like you cared about us, that you wanted to extend yourselves to us.’ That’s what they told us,’ says Jim Sifuentes, the hospital’s vice president of mission and community development.

It was simple. The community felt like St. Anthony didn’t care, so why would the people go there? Medaglia declared mea culpa and embarked on a journey to rebrand the hospital and re-establish itself as the community’s hospital. It would take a year and a half longer than the eight weeks he signed up for.

Today the hospital is thriving. It actually made $3 million last year, and it routinely fills nearly all of its 166 beds. Unlike many hospitals, St. Anthony is adding staff and running out of room for its patients.

St. Anthony’s turnaround is a case study in the value of communication, and of community.

Medaglia calls St. Anthony “a hospital without walls.”

He requires hospital executives to spend two hours a week in the community. After he arrived, the hospital began printing its newsletter in English and Spanish, a no-brainer, he says. It added a barbecue pit in front of the hospital, and sought to alleviate the crowded parking situation by using valets. Walls are adorned with art created by local schoolchildren.

Most importantly, the hospital got back to its roots.

“I was pleasantly surprised when Guy came to me and said, ‘We want to be part of the community,’” says Alderman George Cardenas (D-12). “I said, ‘You’re nowhere to be seen. If I have a health event and you’re not there, you’re not part of the community!’”

When Medaglia arrived, the hospital lacked a presence in the neighborhood. Cardenas said the waiting room was unwelcoming.  People thought it was a private hospital. Physicians did not recommend patients go to the hospital.

“I found that most of our people would be at Cook County Hospital,” says Father Jim Garland, president of Cristo Rey High School in nearby Pilsen. For many, St. Anthony was not even a second or third option.

“We couldn’t say we owned the Latino community,” Sifuentes says. Of course, they couldn’t say they owned the African-American community, either. “How do we bring two communities that are so divided?”

Medaglia and his team identified issues affecting the community, such as violence, health risks and motherhood. They spent time at churches, talking with parishioners. They worked with Cardenas and Alderman Denise Dixon (D-24) to host health fairs. They even hosted a car show, where community members could show off their custom vehicles. It spawned a calendar that the hospital sold.

In June, the hospital hosted a forum on youth and violence, responding to the dozens of shooting deaths of Chicago Public Schools students.

“From that time on, they have really been instrumental in changing some habits, and they have seen for themselves how beneficial it can be if a hospital like St. Anthony becomes an anchor of the community,” Cardenas says.

“They were probably both humble and smart enough to realize that working in our community is really based on the relationship,” Garland says. “That’s where you’re going to build up trust.”

The changes have been remarkable, and not just on the balance sheet.

Sifuentes says the hospital fills a niche as a Catholic organization. But it has connected with Baptist ministries and other churches, going so far as to establish interfaith chapels inside the hospital.

 “The way that we approach things now has brought us closer to the community,” says Rita Esquiliano, St. Anthony’s community liaison. “Before, the majority of things we did were just (through) word-of-mouth…but now since we’ve been able to expand our services, we’re out there as much as we can.”

One of the most successful programs put nurses in parishes in North Lawndale and Pilsen, giving immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English, access to health care and social services. Simple things, like showcasing artwork produced by local kids and adding televisions with English and Spanish-language programs have made the hospital a welcoming haven.

“In establishing those relationships, people feel a door has been opened to them,” Garland says.

Sifuentes says the hospital’s staff is better about soliciting advice and criticism, and following up with community members.

“Expectations are high, and when you expect a lot from people, for the most part they have risen to the occasion,” he says. “People are very happy when they know they can come here and we are living out the mission.”

Medaglia’s term at St. Anthony was only supposed to last two months.

But he wants to see the hospital’s transformation through, even if it keeps him away from his family, which splits time in South Carolina and Rhode Island. At the time of an interview with the Daily News, he had not seen his family four weeks.

“I got caught up in it,” Medaglia says. “I love what I do, and I got into it.”

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.