Mount Auburn Hospital was a sinking ship when Jeanette Clough took the helm in 1998.
Clough, though, wasn't daunted. As a nurse-turned-chief executive officer, she had previously orchestrated a hospital's financial turnaround at Deaconess Waltham. With a personality described by colleagues as smart, transparent, dedicated, and compassionate, Clough set a plan in motion to revive Mount Auburn.
And now, 10 years later?
"She has us humming on all cylinders," said Stephen Chubb, chairman of Mount Auburn's board of trustees.
The hospital's profit margin has ranked in the top seven in Massachusetts over the past six years, the state-of-the-art Stanton Building is set to open on time in November, and the formerly small institution with a reputation as the quintessential community hospital has become comparable to its prestigious counterparts across the Charles River.
Not to mention, there's free valet parking.
But while the most high-profile change is the Stanton Building, with two operating rooms, an intensive care unit, and the transition to an all-private-room campus, it is Clough's behind-thescenes alterations that more acutely define the cohesiveness and success of the hospital.
"My focus is on quality, clinical outcomes, and medicine safety," said the 52-year-old Clough, who holds the titles of president and CEO. "But to achieve that, I try to eliminate as many distractions as possible."
Distractions include competitiveness among physicians, power struggles, and a disconnect between patients and their doctors.
"The physicians here actually like each other," she said. "There are no turf wars. I consider doctors my colleagues and take them out to dinner."
Clough, who is quick to credit the entire Mount Auburn staff for the turnaround, maintains harmony keeping an open-door policy. She encourages feedback and greets almost everyone by name while walking through the corridors. "This way," she said, "people let me know when something has gone amiss."
Her staff seems to agree. Stephen Zinner, chairman of the Department of Medicine, said Clough is their "leader in every sense of the word."
"It's the best-run institution I've worked for in over 40 years in the industry," he added.
As a testament to Clough's standing among her peers both locally and in New England, she was recently elected to the American Hospital Association's board of trustees.
"It shows that she's excellent at consensus-building," said Jack Barry, the association's regional executive for New England. "Part of being a good leader is making everyone feel empowered, and at that hospital, it's all about sharing."
For all her recent achievements, Clough doesn't dwell on them very long.
In the short term, the weak economy is beginning to affect the hospital industry. "People are putting off getting care, and the expenses for us are going up," said Clough.
She also has to plan constantly for an uncertain future. With the Stanton Building, Clough will usher in new specialists and prepare to grapple with the challenges facing the medical industry.
"The baby boomers born in 1945 become eligible for Medicare in 18 months," she said, "and there will be an absolute increase of people needing care. Thankfully, we'll be prepared for that, and the infrastructure here will take us into the next 20 to 30 years."
Among other things, she's concentrating on how to better measure benchmarks of progress for the Harvard teaching hospital, further improve drug accuracy, and give all patients a private room to allow for reduced spread of infection, greater comfort, and more confidentiality.
"When patients feel supported, they listen better and comply better with the regimens, which makes for better outcomes," she said.
Above all, Clough is interested in the quality of patient care. And that extends beyond successful medical outcomes.
"I'm a nurse, so I love creating an environment for patients - that's what it's all about," she said. On Christmas, Clough delivers poinsettias to patients. She routinely makes rounds and asks what could be done better. In 2006, she enthusiastically allowed a wedding to take place in the hospital's board room so that a terminally ill father (who died two days later) could see his daughter get married.
As the hospital grows, she says, it has to strike a balance of staying large enough to have the finances, but small enough to "stay close to patients and to each other."
"There is a tremendous simplicity in sticking to the knitting and getting it right," she said, adding that it's "extremely easy" to get off track. "I've lived through two hospital turnarounds, and I never want to go back there."
"When you've accomplished as much as she has," said Barry, "I know I'd have a big head about it. But she has a great deal of humility and sense of who she is."
Or as Zinner says: "People like Jeanette are rare in the world."