Business Q & A

A conversation with Randy Peterson

During his more than two decades in health care, Randy Peterson estimates that he has served as an interim chief executive at nearly every hospital in which he's worked.

Add another one to his resume.

"I'm kind of getting this reputation as being the interim guy, I guess," Peterson said, laughing.

Peterson, 56, became interim CEO of Via Christi Health last week. He assumes the position that was held by Kevin Conlin, who is joining Coventry Health Care in Bethesda, Md., as executive vice president in January.

Peterson, senior vice president of Via Christi Health Hospitals, is taking on the leadership of a health care organization that has a portfolio of 11 acute-care and rehabilitation hospitals, 15 owned or managed senior-living campuses and programs, and 9,000 employees in Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

And he comes into the top role at a time when Via Christi Health is just beginning to bring Wichita Clinic, a 160-physician-member group, into its operations.

"There's a fair amount of change and transition ahead of us," he said.

Peterson said he's been through mergers before — he was chief operating officer of Asbury-Salina Regional Medical Center when it merged with St. John's Regional Health Center in 1995.

He hopes to use some of that experience working though the Wichita Clinic acquisition.

"I think the challenge will be bringing those two cultures together and creating a new culture," Peterson said.

Peterson grew up in Hooper, Neb., a town of about 800 people about an hour north of Lincoln.

He has two grown daughters, one of whom is a speech pathologist in San Diego and the other a veterinarian for the Tulsa Zoo. Peterson's wife, Christi, is a marriage and family therapist.

The Eagle sat down with Peterson days before he assumed his new role.

You started your health care career as a physical therapist. How did you become interested in physical therapy?

"I was going to the University of Nebraska, playing intramural basketball, and I got injured. I went to the student health center and the physical therapist who treated me was George Sullivan, who was the head physical therapist and trainer for the university and the football team, and he asked me what I was going to (study in college). I probably got into it more because of sports medicine than anything else."

What are you doing right now to prepare yourself for the interim CEO position?

"Really spending time with Kevin Conlin in terms of some of the activities he has been doing, being with the board at the Health System level and our sponsors. As a member of what we call the President's Council, I'm pretty in tune with our strategic plan."

How will that position be different from the one you currently occupy?

"I oversee all of our hospital operations... currently what I'm doing is working with those local hospital boards and CEOs. In this interim role I'll have responsibility for all the divisions, physician division, senior division, then our health services activities. Obviously it's more scope. Folks that are my colleagues now on the President's Council will have a reporting relationship with me, and I think that's going to work out well. We've got a great strategic plan, we just need to keep moving it (forward). That's how I see my role."

Will anyone step into your current role on an interim basis while you are fulfilling your new duties?

"I'm going to continue to do (my current job). I'll have two roles that I'll be doing."

When do you think we'll begin to see the integration of Wichita Clinic into Via Christi Health unfold? How will that be visible to the general public, or will it?

"We've asked Dave Gambino, who's our senior vice president for strategy, to really head that up and put together an integration process. Maybe the first sign will actually be signage. From a patient's perspective I don't think you'll see a whole lot of change immediately. It's going to take some time."

Would you say that this is the most challenging point in your career?

"The size of the health system, the complexity of the health system, the multiple operating divisions we have — obviously I haven't managed that size of an organization in my history, so I think it is probably the most challenging."

How would you describe your leadership style?

"I've tried to always create teams and teamwork. I think it's important that we develop leaders within the organization. And we do that by giving people opportunities to expand their scope of responsibilities. Obviously somebody did that for me."

What about hospital administration engages you, keeps you interested?

"I guess moving from the bedside as a therapist to administration I felt I could make a bigger impact, through strategic planning and the leadership side of it. I also felt like the administration piece gave me more of an opportunity to work with physicians because a lot of what hospital administration is is developing relationships with doctors."