Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Washington Health System commemorative 125th anniversary tab, published Nov. 13.
Brook Ward is so well-versed in the 125-year history of Washington Hospital that he could summarize it in 125 seconds.
The president and CEO of WHS will tell you The Washington hospital launched in 1897 but later merged with City Hospital in 1921. The hospitals worked out of two separate residences until the Wilson family donated their farm to the hospital. A new, spacious health center was erected on what would become Wilson Avenue and opened in 1927. That has since been the home of the system’s flagship hospital.
A lot has happened since that modest start during the McKinley administration. The Washington Hospital has grown and prospered, morphing into a system with 20-plus locations that employ an estimated 2,000 full- and part-time employees, 300 medical staff and 300 volunteers. WHS is the largest employer in Washington County and among the top employers in Greene, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry.
It isn’t easy being an independent health system in a region with relative giants UPMC and Allegheny Health Network. Yet, since 1897, WHS has been fending off competitive challenges as well as two global pandemics, two world wars, polio, recessions, staggering inflation, and the Great Resignation. Like so many businesses and organizations, the system is still wrestling with increasing costs, worker shortages and COVID-19.
Washington Health System is still standing, though, and Ward – again drawing on history – is confident of its future.
“Thinking back to early years, those two hospitals (in the city) lived through a lot of upheaval and stress,” he said. “They had to deal with World War I and the Spanish flu (1918-1920),” a notorious outbreak that infected nearly one-third of the global population.
“My lesson from our ancestors is they had less technology, less science and less knowledge than we have today, and made it through that time. If they can make it, we will make it as well.”
If awards are an accurate barometer, Washington Health System is making it. “We’re getting more awards than ever,” Ward said of an organization that has been much decorated in 2022.
U.S. News & World Report selected the hospital as a high-performing facility for stroke care, COPD and kidney failure treatment. Healthgrades America named it one of the 50 Best Hospitals for Surgical Care and presented WHS with the Surgical Care Excellence award, just to name a few.
Ward, who succeeded Gary Weinstein as president and CEO in July 2019, said it is paramount that the system function at a high professional level. “Not only do we want to get diagnoses and treatments right,” he said, “but we need to be very efficient and treat people in a courteous and professional manner at the same time.”
Expansion has been a byword at Washington Health System, and that should continue, Ward said. “We are always looking for opportunities for our organization to grow. We have to grow to remain healthy. I’d love to have doctors and facilities in all communities and see us continue to provide core services. We’re keeping our eyes on where the population is growing and thinking of how we grow with them.”
During flu season, Ward and other WHS leaders are also keeping their eyes on health trends. “The concern across the health care industry is we’re expecting a worse and larger flu pandemic,” Ward said in late October. “We have 15 COVID inpatients, probably more than we’ve had in six or eight months. We have RSV, COVID and flu (all respiratory-related) at the same time. We might not have the same volume of COVID this year, but there is a big concern that we could have a rise in hospitalizations (COVID, flu and RSV).
“At this point, a lot of people feel the pandemic will be with us for the rest of our lives. Like the flu, it will be more dangerous some years than other years.”
Staffing also has been an issue a year after the Great Resignation began. “The question now is not so much ‘Will we have enough respirators and medicine, but will we have enough health care workers if a surge happens?’” said Ward.
“Before the Great Resignation, we had over 30 open positions. A year ago, we had 240 openings, and that hasn’t budged over the year. But if you look at the people who are leaving, the vast majority are not getting another job but retiring. Baby Boomers have been a driving force for decades, but there’s not a large enough group of people behind them to replace them. We have lower immigration and fewer births.”
Weinstein, Ward’s predecessor as president and CEO, has a keen appreciation for the organization that employed him for 38 years and for what it has become. He told the Observer-Reporter weeks before his retirement: “Expansion, I think, is the most important thing we’ve done, but it hasn’t been expansion for expansion’s sake.”
“We’ve gone from being the hospital on the hill that provided acute care to a system that has reached out to the community and provided better and more complete services.”
Reached via telephone recently, Weinstein said, “it was a much different field and business when I started with Washington (in 1981). There was one hospital, and it was an inpatient-focused business.”
Weinstein pointed out he and Ward are two of only five CEOs Washington Hospital has had since 1953, adding to a continuum has benefited its operation.
“I think the hospital has had an uncommon level of stability and leadership, both at the volunteer board level and all levels of leadership,” Weinstein said. “On the whole, this has led to very good things for the community.”
Ward agreed and, in closing, added, “Our success, stability, and growth are in thanks to our community and the incredible members of our team. Not only our current team members but those that held various positions through our 125-year history. Thank you for your dedication to our patients, our community, our organization, and our mission. Our team members are our most important asset, and they are the future of local healthcare.”