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MED

Regional Health’s New Leading Lady

Oct 24, 2018 06:00AM ● By Alyssa McGinnis

By Dan Daly and Alex Strauss

It’s an intensely beautiful Black Hills morning, and Paulette Davidson is outside her home grooming Jess, the gentle mare that’s been part of her life for the past 18 years.

Nearby, Davidson’s husband, Dru Davidson, trims the mane on his mule. Their hyperactive Australian Shepherd, Cali, runs circles around horses, people, fence posts, photographers and anything else she can corner. The Davidsons have lived in their log house near Rockerville for less than three years, but they seem completely at home in the Hills.

Davidson loves to take Jess on long rides on the trails near their home.

“Jess and I have these amazing conversations,” she says. “Jess is a great listener, and she helps me make good decisions.”

The two have a lot to talk about these days.

In September, Paulette Davidson became President and Chief Executive Officer of Regional Health, the largest employer in western South Dakota. She’s responsible for five hospitals, dozens of clinics, 5,000 employees and the healthcare needs of nearly half a million people. Meanwhile, the business of medicine is seeing major changes nationwide.

Fortunately, Davidson has more than 35 years of experience in healthcare to prepare her for the inevitable challenges of her new position.  

Over the years, she has seen first-hand that quality care is the shared responsibility of every single caregiver, regardless of their job. Even the person who empties trash cans and cleans rooms can help create a good patient experience, she says. In her first job, she was that person.  

While in high school, Davidson worked in a hospital housekeeping department in Illinois. She cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors, changed bedding and cleaned operating rooms. Not glamorous, but important work, and a great education.

“I loved it,” she recalls. “It was an environment where I could work with really brilliant people who were making a difference.”

EARLY WORK ETHIC

Davidson grew up in a working family in Waukegan, Illinois., on the shores of Lake Michigan halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Her dad was a machinist for Outboard Marine Corp. making parts for boat motors. When the plant closed, he went to work as a custodian at one of the elementary schools.

When Davidson started kindergarten, her mom went to work as well. Paulette became a classic latchkey kid, with one tasty exception -- her mom worked on the production line at a plant that made Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

"I thought it was the greatest thing,” Paulette declares with a broad smile. "I am a product of Kraft Mac & Cheese.”

By the time she got to high school, Davidson’s parents made it clear that if she wanted spending money, she had to get a job. That’s when she went to work in hospital housekeeping.

Even though her job was to clean rooms, she often found herself interacting directly with patients and their families. She also realized that in a hospital setting, people feel anxious, afraid, isolated and sometimes angry. Everyone in healthcare, regardless of their work, needs to reassure, show compassion and ease the emotional burden that illness and injury bring to families.

Davidson also had a chance to see the skill of doctors, nurses and technicians as they put their patients and families at ease.

“These families are in situations that are not always pleasant, and it’s amazing to see how our teams come together, reassure a patient and help them with decisions that they have to make,” she says. “They create the moments that people remember for their lifetime. It’s an art form, and I’m still in awe of the people who can do that so well.”

After high school, Davidson enrolled in the University of Wisconsin in Kenosha. She continued to work in healthcare 30 hours per week while taking a full load of classes. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. From there, she continued to work in healthcare assuming a variety of different roles and gaining experience — everything from switchboard operator to clinic administrator to hospital leadership roles. Along the way, she also earned an MBA from the University of Notre Dame.

“I was able to earn my tuition by working in healthcare, and expand my knowledge and grow within healthcare,” she says.

After earning her MBA, Davidson worked in healthcare administration across the Midwest, including Midwestern Regional Medical Center and Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois, Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital, in Goshen, Indiana, Bellevue Medical Center in Bellevue, Nebraska, and  Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

THE ROAD TO THE BLACK HILLS

Davidson’s first introduction to the Black Hills was a trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Later, she and Dru drove out from Omaha with their horses to ride the trails in Custer State Park — something that had been on their bucket list for years.

It was Dru who saw the Regional Health job posting for a Chief Operating Officer. “He said, ‘You should apply for that job. We could live in the Black Hills’,” says Davidson.

During the interview process, the couple spent time in Rapid City and other Black Hills communities where they were struck by the friendliness of the people they met in shops, restaurants and on the streets downtown.

In November 2015, Davidson became Chief Operating Officer for Regional Health. She later added the responsibilities of the President of the Rapid City Hospital and market, the largest of Regional Health’s five hospital communities.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

In conversations with caregivers at the various hospitals, clinics and offices throughout the network, Davidson and her team keep asking the question, “What is your ‘why?’ What brought you to healthcare?”

“So many people say they want to make a difference,” says Davidson. “Honestly, it connects with me, as well. When I had to ask myself: What is my why? I know I want to make something better, and leave the world better than it was before. If you set out every day to make things better for people, we’ll make significant progress over time.”

Davidson has already been instrumental in making things better at Regional Health. During her tenure as COO, she helped define the organization’s priorities, a set of five focus areas, ratified by the health system board, that make up a sort of “road map” for the future.

“We are on a journey and we know there are going to be turns in the road,” says Davidson. “Having this ‘road map’ means that all of our strategies are going to support those five priorities.”

NAVIGATING THE ROAD MAP

During Davidson’s time at Regional Health, the system has improved clinical outcomes with initiatives like the implementation of the system-wide EPIC EHR platform, expansion projects in Rapid City, Custer, and Sturgis, standardization of sepsis care, and the establishment of new protocols for antibiotic and opioid use.

As part of their focus on creating a caring environment, Regional has developed and delivered a curriculum on service delivery, including cultural diversity training. Their efforts to improve service specifically for the Native American community, including the construction of a new round conference room to accommodate native ceremonies, has earned them recognition from the American Hospital Association.

“We have moments throughout every single day when we can touch someone’s life forever,” says Davidson. “It can be a hand held when delivering difficult news or a hug in a moment of relief. This will be our focus.”

The third priority is also about creating a positive experience — for staff.

“We want to stay competitive with compensation and benefits, but also other things like environment, values, and the ability for caregivers to have a voice in how we solve challenges,” says Davidson, who has been hosting a series of Town Hall-style meetings to outline her vision and invite feedback.

The final two priorities focus on community involvement and longevity. Regional Health incentivizes volunteerism among caregivers, has implemented community projects like a clinic-based food pantry, and partnered on Pennington County’s new social-service complex which opened in September.

 “Community healthcare is vital for industry. It is the economic engine of the community,” says Davidson. “Our intention is to be here to take care of our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That means we have to make good decisions so that we can support the other four missions.”

Fortunately Jess, the mare with the great listening skills, is always there to help.