2013: Women to Watch

Published 9:17 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sue Lassiter knows all about small-town life…after all, she grew up in one.

With a vast background in medical education, including a Masters degree in Nursing, Lassiter could have very easily chosen to live and work in a larger city. However, she opted for the small-town environment of Ahoskie.

“I’ve loved it here ever since I was hired as the Director of Nursing at what is now Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital back in 1985,” said Lassiter, who now serves as President of the local medical facility.

A native of Brunswick, Maryland – a town of approximately 5,500 residents tucked on the banks of the Potomac River northwest of Washington, DC – Lassiter found out early in life that the field of medicine was her true passion. She received a Bachelors of Science in Nursing degree from D’youville College in Buffalo, NY. She then came south, landing a job in 1976 as a nurse at Duke University Hospital.

“I guess I wanted to thaw out from the Buffalo winters,” she chuckled.

After two years as a staff nurse at Duke, Lassiter decided to further her education, enrolling at East Carolina University where she earned a Masters degree in Nursing in 1980. That move also allowed Lassiter to work at Pitt County Memorial Hospital (1978-1985), now the flagship medical facility of the Vidant Health System.

“In 1985 I received a phone call from Pete Geilich (then the RCH President), offering me a job as Director of Nursing,” Lassiter recalled. “I came up for an interview in February or March and was hired April 1. Some people may be leery of starting a job on April Fool’s Day, but it’s worked out well for me.”

A few internal promotions later, Lassiter found herself as a candidate to replace Geilich as RCH President in 1997. It was in February of that year where RCH entered a lease agreement with Pitt County Memorial Hospital, the roots of a long-lasting relationship that now has the Ahoskie medical facility as part of the Vidant Health System.

“We (RCH) were the first community hospital that Pitt entered into a formal relationship with,” Lassiter said of the current-day system that includes nine other hospitals.

She succeeded Geilich as RCH President in early 1997, becoming the first woman in the hospital’s history (founded in 1948) to serve in that capacity.

What Lassiter has witnessed in the field of medicine since her early days at D’youville College until the present is nothing short of amazing.

“The most impressive thing to me is the focus on quality and patient safety, and patient family engagement,” she said. “Now, value based purchasing, the payments for the level of care we provide, is based on our quality performance, our patient care scores, and if we don’t perform well in both of those areas then our payments are cut, which eventually also applies to the professional fee side of the world, which impacts our physicians.”

Lassiter also noted a huge improvement in transparency.

“In today’s world you have to show your hand, show your scorecard, telling everyone of how you are rated, how you are performing,” Lassiter said. “Consumers now have the ability to shop around for medical care and they’ll go to where there is quality performance. It’s a new day in offering medical services and if you fail to keep up with that changing world you’ll get left behind.”

Another noticeable change, Lassiter said, is the length of patient stay in a hospital.

“What use to require an in-patient stay of several days is now an out-patient stay of sometimes less than six hours,” she stressed. “Advances in technology, to include laparoscopic surgery, and pharmaceuticals has changed the way we deliver services. Surgical recovery times are less than they once were.”

Lassiter also has to stay on the top of her game in recruiting doctors and other medical specialists, thus ensuring the future of Vidant RCH.

“We base our staff on the needs of the local community,” Lassiter stated. “You also keep a close eye on population growth and the ratios between potential patients and the number of your medical staff. You project what those needs will be down the road and add to the staff to meet those needs.”

Vidant Health does perform the “front end” of that recruitment process by identifying candidates for interviews, but it’s left to Lassiter to handle the remainder of that process.

“That’s another big change….years ago our physicians were in private practice; most now are employed by Vidant Medical Group,” she said. “It makes it nice for them to have the resources of a large medical group at their fingertips instead of operating a solo, stand-alone practice.”

Lassiter said she prefers to seek out new staff members that have small community experience.

“If I look back over the years of those here that came and left, they were those without that small town background,” Lassiter noted. “Either they or their spouse were not happy when they got here. I look for that perfect match, people with small town values. I know then they will be happy living in this area.”

Lassiter loves the local area, saying, “We could not be in a more perfect geographical area. We’re two hours from everywhere and still get to live in a small, quiet country setting. This area is the world’s best kept secret.”

It’s that family atmosphere within the communities that dot the Roanoke-Chowan area landscape that Lassiter sees carryover into RCH.

“We value patient-family engagement here at this hospital,” Lassiter said. “We have a formal Patient Family Advisory Council here with 10 members. Simply stated, we want, we desire to allow our patients to have a voice here; we want a family’s perspective before we make decisions, before we make policies. Sometimes what makes sense to use as healthcare workers doesn’t work for patients and families. That’s why we’re here, to serve our patients and their families. I don’t know why it took so long for the overall healthcare community to figure that out, it should have been done decades ago.”

Another staple of a small community hospital centers on the fact that its employees are often friends and/or neighbors of the patients they serve.

“This is a level of good neighbors taking care of good neighbors that you don’t get within a larger system,” Lassiter said.

Vidant RCH is one of the region’s largest employers, with a staff (full and part-time) of 630 workers. Over 520 are full-time staffers. The annual salary budget is $33 million.

“Our main focus is providing healthcare every day, but this hospital also provides a financial impact on the community as the salaries earned by our employees turns over locally,” Lassiter stated.

Within the framework of Vidant Health Systems, Lassiter said the future of medical care in eastern North Carolina is promising.

“Dr. Dave Herman (CEO of Vidant) is definitely the right man at the right time,” Lassiter noted. “He came to us from the Mayo System where he worked for 14 years. He has served in nearly every leadership capacity, from physician leader, to running a hospital to running a medical practice. He knows how to shape healthcare going forward.

“Under his leadership we’re becoming a system of care, instead of 10 different hospitals,” she continued. “The communities we serve know that wherever they see the Vidant name they can expect a standardized level of quality, experience and safety. I also agree with Dr. Herman’s strategic approach to deliver healthcare locally. If a patient needs a higher level of medical care, then we can send them to the (Vidant) MedicalCenter (in Greenville). When they receive that specialized level of service, that patient can expect to return here to their local community to continue their level of care.”

Vidant Health, with 12,000 employees, serves 1.4 million people in 29 eastern ‘Carolina counties.

“Vidant’s vision is to improve health in eastern North Carolina,” Lassiter stressed.

Looking into her own crystal ball, Lassiter said she sees one of the biggest items to address medically in the future is patient care coordination.

“We have got to figure out the best direction to take in that regard,” she said. “A patient only receives about three percent of their total healthcare inside a hospital. The rest happens out in the community. Getting everyone to the same table – physician practices, health department personnel, anyone providing health services – is very important. We need to develop a care plan for the patients. The ultimate goal is to wrap the majority of their care around their primary care medical home. We have to design a roadmap for these patients to maintain their health as long as possible.

“The future of medical care also begs to include more discussion about end of life care, palliative care,” Lassiter added. “We need these patients, while they’re still able to talk and make decisions, decide what they want to occur as their end of life nears. More money is spent medically in the last six months of life than any other time. In my view, that’s part of what’s breaking the healthcare system financially when the ultimate outcome is not going to be altered. We need to recognize that and provide education to that fact….promoting the options and asking patients to have a plan.”

Lassiter’s crystal ball also predicts a time where people just simply need to make better health choices on their own.

“We have to change these multi generational patterns of behavior, especially when it comes to obesity,” she said. “People just need to take control of their own health. A lot of companies today are developing wellness plans for their employees. That helps drive employees to make healthy choices. It shows them how eat healthy, helps them change health habits and reduce some of their health risk factors.”

As a true “small town” girl, Lassiter completely understands the importance of community involvement. She has provided leadership in other areas, to include the Ahoskie Rotary Club (where she has served as President and chair of the Rotary Foundation), a board member of the Communities in Schools of Hertford County, and the current chair of the Hertford Health Maintenance Alliance.

“That Alliance has been working for over two years to establish a network of care for the uninsured and underinsured here in HertfordCounty,” she noted. “We’ve also got to figure out transportation, how to get our citizens to the healthcare facilities in a better fashion.”

VidantRoanoke-Chowan Hospital is a 114-bed, not-for-profit hospital. Under Lassiter’s leadership, this modern facility provides a wide range of health services to about 39,000 residents in the four-county area. That care also includes Viquest of Ahoskie, one of three wellness centers in the Vidant system.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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