How William Day engages patients and employees in health care innovation at St. Barnabas Health System

William Day, President & CEO, St. Barnabas Health System

The health care industry is slow to embrace change, William Day says.

“We’re stuck in a rut,” says Day, president and CEO of St. Barnabas Health System. “Here (at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum), I’ve met with several health care people and it’s exciting to hear what is going on, but if you look at the number of people here in health care, there aren’t that many. What’s that say? The business community doesn’t think we are entrepreneurial enough — and maybe we’re not.”

But Day has worked against that trend during his 44-year tenure at St. Barnabas, a nondenominational, not-for-profit health care system with several campuses located near Pittsburgh. He has significantly grown the 670-employee organization in physical size, the variety of services offered and the amount of free care given to those in need.

Smart Business sat down with Day at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how he’s managed to innovate in his industry and engage patients and employees in the process.

Q: Where do you get ideas for innovation in health care?

What services are (customers) getting that we are not providing and that maybe we could provide better than somebody else? What services are not health care that we know they need?

I had dinner last night with a lady and her husband and this lady’s father, who lives in our retirement building. (The son-in-law) said, ‘I’ve got one complaint. … Believe it or not, my father-in-law is really into computers. … Can you get a better computer connection?’ And I said, ‘I’ll be on the BlackBerry tonight and you will be hearing from somebody tomorrow.’

If you have an individual customer who needs some help, don’t blow it off when there’s only one person. … We listen, and then do something about it.

Also, I like to read, and I like to read about success. What have other people done that’s been successful, and is there some application?

Q: Where can you look for ideas in other industries?

There are lessons to be learned in the hospital business that are in the hospitality business, in this hotel. All we have to do is look around. You and I are in a very comfortable place. It’s warm; it’s friendly. How many people would say that about a typical hospital? How many would say that about a hospital room?

Is there a better customer service example than the Ritz-Carlton? … They are obviously smart, doing things that we didn’t expect them to do.

Q: How do you find talented employees who can embrace change?

We like to grow our own. … We mentor them and we nurture them. And those are OK, a lot of people say that, but it actually has to happen. Reward success and not unfairly punish errors. … We try to motivate and that works most of the time, and that in turn gets back to our customers, to the patient.

There are things I don’t know, so I have to trust people who do and then get out of the way. Let them do a good job and come up with innovative ideas to take care of the patient.

We are getting closer and closer with the Pittsburgh Technical Institute. … I’m on the board there. I’ve been very impressed with what they are doing with virtual emergency room, virtual intensive care. The way that our future employees are being taught at PTI just excites me because it’s going to be better for our customers and our patients.

Q: How do you engage employees in the innovation process?

Almost everybody can be creative. We have to have an atmosphere where they are comfortable doing that and that they can make mistakes. But … we can’t make mistakes in health care. That’s all there is to it. We can’t do it; it’s zero tolerance. But to be successful and grow, that’s what has to be. There is no substitute for it. So we sit and talk.

Some of the best meetings we’ve ever had were over a glass of wine or a glass of tea. That’s what I think brings people out. … It’s off the record. They are free to say to me, ‘Well, we’re not so sure about that.’ I say, ‘OK. Let’s sit and talk about it again. What would Ritz-Carlton do?’

How to reach: St. Barnabas Health System, (724) 443-0700 or