SH Podcast, Episode 1. Sister Susanne Hartung

Aug 6, 2018 | Stakeholder Health Podcast | 2 comments



Welcome to the first episode of the Stakeholder Health podcast!

Susanne Hartung, SP, currently serves as the chief mission integration officer for approximately 11,000 shared services caregivers in the Providence St. Joseph Health system. In her role, she is responsible to ensure that the Mission and Values are integrated in all aspects of the shared services’ teams. She also serves on the faculty for the Formation Programs for Leaders of PSJH. She is passionate about access issues, particularly for the poor and vulnerable, and has addressed this by building partnerships with a wide range of community groups. Her efforts in the community have earned her a number of awards, including the Mothers Against Violence Community Catalyst Award from Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) in 2000, the Joseph A. Maguire, SJ, Distinguished Community Service Award, and the Fort Vancouver National Trust recognition award for her efforts to save Providence Academy.

She is interviewed by Dora Barilla, Group Vice President, Community Health Investment for Providence St. Joseph Health, Senior Fellow for the Institute for Health Policy and Fellowship at Loma Linda University Health.

Tom Peterson: In today’s podcast, Dora Barilla talks with Sister Susanne Hartung, Chief Mission Integration Officer for Providence Saint Joseph Health Shared Services. Sister Susanne’s 60th Jubilee, or anniversary, with her Catholic Women’s Religious Congregation, The Sisters of Providence, is August 2018. This conversation took place near Seattle, Washington in June 2018.

Dora Barilla: Hello, everyone and welcome to Next Generation Community Health with Providence Saint Joseph Health. I’m your host, Dora Barilla and today we are joined by Sister Susanne Hartung and we’ll be talking about living the legacy. Well, let’s get started by first welcoming Sister Susanne to the show. Thank you for joining us, Sister Susanne.

Sister Susanne Hartung: It’s a pleasure to be here, Dora.

Barilla: I want to start by … Can you tell us about your history and your current role with Providence Saint Joseph Health?

Hartung: Well, I have to tell you, I’ve been with Providence all my life. I was born at Saint Vincent’s in Portland. I grew up in Portland. I worked at the Child Center as a teenager. I joined the Sisters of Providence and went to school in Seattle, but also began my ministry in education. I taught grade school, High School, was the Academic Administrator of East Side Catholic and went on to become involved in Mission at Providence Medical Center in Seattle, which was a shock to me, because I wasn’t sure I was going to like healthcare, as much as I love it, because I came from academia. But for my last 30 years, I have been in healthcare and find it very, very fulfilling.

Barilla: With all the changes that have happened in healthcare, just over the last decade, how do you ensure that our future and what we’re striving for is grounded in our past and the legacy that was set out for us?

Hartung: So, our legacy is a real treasure for me. The Sisters of Providence, beginning 175 years ago by Emilie Gamelin, was all about taking care of the needs as she saw it and that’s been, kind of, our direction for all the times, for the last 175 years. We go to where the communities need us, or what the services are demanded upon us, and that is our legacy, is to serve with compassion and love for everyone in need.

Barilla:Thank you for sharing that. I just have to share that I was privileged to, actually, go on the pilgrimage with Sister Susanne to Montreal and in the basement of the Mother House, really looking at the individuals that were served and what they were doing and it was really so … The correlation of what was happening today just really struck me that they were serving those that didn’t have enough food. And as we look at our Community Health Needs Assessment, it’s very similar that food and security is often one of the top needs in so many of our communities. So, thank you for sharing that experience and for reminding us of our legacy. Providence Saint Joseph Health recently revised our mission statement. We’re grounded in our mission. Can you share your thoughts on the importance of grounding our future work in the mission?

Hartung: I think there’s been a lot of attention given to this revision of the mission statement, as the two organizations came together, but both the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sisters of Providence and our healthcare ministries and education ministries, social service ministries, our mission has never, never changed. And it’s confusion, I think, to some people, say we have a new mission. We have no new mission. It’s exactly the same as I just prefaced, with regarding to serving the poor, finding the unmet needs and taking care of them. The Sisters of Saint Joseph as well. The Sisters of Providence. We are parallel, in synced with that same mission and that’s what is called of us today.

Barilla:Could you share why you think it’s important that we called out the poor and the vulnerable in our new mission statement?

Hartung: Thanks, Dora, for asking that question, because it’s a passion of mine and also for the Sisters. I happen to have been on the committee that wrestled with how this new mission statement was going to play out. We knew what the mission was, but we had to find words to express it in a new way. And we wrestled whether we should just put the word “vulnerable” in there or whether we should have “the poor” in there or the “service to all” in it and I will tell you, one of our very leading and dynamic leaders said to me, “If you don’t have ‘the poor’ and ‘the vulnerable’ in that statement, I’m out of here.”

So, that was a private conversation. I’m not going to divulge of who said that, but if he’s listening, he’ll know. And when we did a former mission statement, we did put down “the compassionate service to all” and the Sisters said, “No, we need to have the words ‘the poor’ and ‘the vulnerable,’” but it really calls out a description of the people that we really want to be sure we embrace. And sometimes that’s a challenge for us or how we’re going to have resources to take care of the poor and the vulnerable. But in terms of healthcare and education, social services, I would say, anyone who is in need is vulnerable and the same thing about the poor. It’s not always the economic poor, but I think many of us are poor when we are vulnerable and we are in need of love, compassion, services and so it’s a much, much broader statement than just the economic poor.

Barilla:Well, as a leader in community health, I want to thank you for advocating for that and standing for that, because I think so many of us in healthcare and leaders in healthcare need that encouragement. And so, I want to really lead into what bits of wisdom can you give us and the future leaders in healthcare and community health and how can you inspire us to … with all of the pressures in healthcare to really stay grounded in that?

Hartung: Dora, you’re asking for my wisdom and my insight. Thank you. I feel complimented by that, but I’m not sure I have any more wisdom than anyone else. I just came from our formation cohort and we talked about the challenges of our new strategy of 2.0, which we don’t know how it’s going to play out, but the only encouragement that I can give to people, as we go through this is, they have to have a prayerful life.

Emilie Gamelin, and the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Sister Bernard, they could never have done what they did without being introspective, reflective, look at their spirit that will direct them to do the right thing, and I’m not sure it’s wisdom. It’s more of a context of how we go about life is to really be thoughtful in a very spiritual way, whether you believe in a God or believe in Christ or whatever. I think all of us have an interior sense of purpose and rather than just go randomly through our work or our ministry, we’ve got to be thoughtful and reflective and really understand what the common good is about.

Barilla:Thank you for that. Now, as Providence Saint Joseph Health and many other health systems around the country are really looking at revising their strategies on how we’re looking at population health and community health and we are moving from healthcare to health. What’s the one thing that you want to make sure we don’t forget or miss?

Hartung: Well, I think, health in general, has a lot to do with self-responsibility. If I want to be healthy, then I’ve got to have some responsibility for that health. And so, I certainly would encourage us to, not look to the healthcare systems to provide health, but first of all, to begin with ourselves and say, “What can I do to become more healthy?”

We have our vision statement, Health for a Better World. I mean, I could talk forever about what that might mean, but that’s a huge vision statement when you think about taking on the world. And right now, I’m thinking about the immigrants, the people that are coming in across our borders that have multiple, multiple health issues and how are we going to take care of them? I don’t have any answers for that. I just know it’s a huge challenge for us and yet, I know that we’ll be able to meet those challenges in some creative and intelligent way, but I’m just not sure how it’s going to be done.

Barilla:Now, as a Sister of Providence and your vast history in education and healthcare and in life, can you share with us some of your greatest life lessons?

Hartung: I have a saying that, probably, is the best that sustains me. I’m a very hopeful person, I would say. I’m a very joyful person. I don’t get down about much. The only thing that causes me any distress at all, or stress, is when I know that other people are going to be impacted by the decisions that we make. That does cause me some suffering, but I always say that when things … and particularly, when people make mistakes and people get pretty angst about mistakes that they’ve made, I just say, “This too shall pass. This too shall pass. And life moves on and tomorrow will be a new day.” And so that’s, kind of, my mantra and that if we really believe that we’re instruments for good and it’s not about us, it’s about other people and it’s about, excuse me, the common good, I think we can move through life a little more gracefully. Sometimes I think we get caught up on our own self or our own purpose or in a way that is not as reflective as it could be.

Barilla:Thank you for sharing that. I know that just having your office so close to mine in Providence Saint Joseph Health here up in Renton that, there’s days when your light is on that I’m always encouraged. So, your presence is really powerful, in terms of encouraging, so thank you for those wise words.

Hartung:  Thanks, Dora.

Barilla:Is there anything that you’d like to share? Your greatest success in your career? What’s the story?

Hartung:  Oh, wow. My greatest success. I’d have to say, Sisters never talk about success. I probably will tell you that, most recently, something that impacted me more than I have been impacted for the last, probably, five years is my trip to Guatemala with the surgical team. And it’s very emotional for me, even to talk about it, is I was with these doctors and nurses, 50 of us were there, taking care of the poorest of the poor that came from the villages that had no healthcare for years. Our teams built wheelchairs for these people. One man crawled in on his arms, because he didn’t have legs and he had no mobility for years and he was put into this wheelchair and I mean, the brilliance of light that was cast upon him, because he had mobility. That had a huge impact on me.

So, I think there’s experiences that I’ve had that have shaped me. I never think of success. I don’t know what success looks like. Truly, I don’t, but I know experiences that have been wonderful and Guatemala was one of those.

Barilla:As we look at medical services trips abroad, they’re often not here in the United States, but what lessons do you think that our providers and other individuals that attend things and experience those experiences bring back to our local communities?

Hartung: One of the big, big lessons, and I happened to have been the Chaplin on this one, so I was able to share with the teams and they shared with the entire group what the impacts were for them, but we live in such abundance here in the United States and unless you go see the poorest of the poor … I’m talking economically poor. They’re poor in every other way and the patients … I got to pray with every single patient and in every family and it was very, very difficult.

And I had an amazing translator and we had to go out and tell these families something that was going on in surgery that perhaps the outcome wasn’t what was expected. And I grabbed onto the translator’s hand and I simply said, “Look, Robin, we’ve gotto be strength to these people. We have great suffering, but this person is suffering, but we have got to be a strength for the people.” So she, “Well, can I hold your hand as I translate, because this is really going to be hard for me?” And I said, “Well, it’s going to be hard for me, but I’m just asking God will give us the strength to tell these people how difficult the suffering of their loved one is in surgery.”

Hartung: So, I think, going to the international missions and seeing the poorest of the poor, really poor and vulnerable in every, every aspect, not only economically, but every other way. They came in on rickety buses and they had been triaged in their villages in these shacks that live up in the mountainous areas, so I think the impact on all of us …

I remember Mike Butler coming back, after he’d been to the village couple years ago and he kept saying, “I’m telling you, I’ve been transformed by this experience. Transformed.” And I kept saying, “Mike, what do you mean by that?” And I think it was hard to describe what it does to you. And I couldn’t come to work for the first two days that I was back, because I didn’t want to talk about it. It was very, very difficult to explain the impact.

Hartung: But I still treasure every patient. And I have pictures of patients that I prayed with and talked with and their families and they’re on my iPhone and I look at them frequently. And I just feel so bonded with the Guatemalan people and, particularly now, that the volcano has erupted, I’m going, “How can these people have to experience one more thing that is covered with dust or their loved ones are under the rubble of the volcano?”

So, it gives you a different perspective. And I’ve traveled a lot throughout the world, but nothing, to the point … I mean, I’ve been to Europe and been to the art museums and been to Switzerland and climbed the mountains and so on, which are all God’s beauty, to be certain, but I will tell you, there’s nothing more beautiful than the poor of Guatemala. And they’re the ones that I have met.

Barilla:Thank you for sharing. What a beautiful story and life lesson. Now, leading into that, as you think about the traits of our future healthcare leaders, what do you think they’re going to need?

Hartung: I often get the chance to interview our leaders, as they come into the organization, and I will tell you, the one trait … They walk in the door and the first trait I look for is humility. I think our leaders have to have a great deal of humility in understanding that they may not know everything that they need to know and they have to search for it by the team or by other resources. But sometimes I think people feel like they have to come in and know it all and quite frankly, that’s not going to work. There are so many moving parts. I would like to know anyone who knows what the whole picture looks like.

So, humility would be one. As I mentioned, I would want them to be prayerful, reflective, and have a sense, a real purpose of why they’re at Providence Saint Joseph and it’s not about them. It’s about others. It’s about service. It’s the whole tenure of servant leadership. If you look at all the tenants of servant leadership, that is what we want our leaders to be is servant leaders.

So, there’s nothing like a visionary that can bring people along, but I look at vision statements and I’m going, “Okay, I know they’re aspirational, but there’s got to be some sense of assurance we’re going to get to part of it.” So, I’d like a leader to be able to describe how we’re going to live out that vision. So, charismatic, thoughtful, gracious, kind, loving, compassionate, that’s what the future leader has to be. Every day there’s going to be a moving part and if people in leadership don’t have the ability to ask for help or to look to how these problems are going to be solved or the challenges that we face, we’re not going to get anyplace.

Barilla:So, what do you see as the biggest challenges in healthcare and community health moving forward?

Hartung: That’s pretty easy for me, because I think about it a lot. I think 75 million people in the United States are on Medicaid. Those are the poor. States fund 25 to 50% of Medicaid. These are our poor. These are the people that Providence Saint Joseph embrace. These are the people that Catholic Healthcare embrace, across the country. And, with technology increasing, and the cost of technology increasing, we’ve got to balance how we’re going to take care of these poor, moving forward with our strategy of 2.0, and figure out how is it that we can serve the poor and the vulnerable, as well as, be ahead of the game in terms of technology?

Technology is so expensive and I know that, in the end, we hope digital health and all the things that we’re going to do with technology will make vast strides in serving our communities better, but I think it’s going to be a real challenge to balance that with the amount of money and resources we need to serve the poor. That’s huge.

Barilla:Yeah. That’s a big challenge ahead of us. So, on the flip side of that, what do you see as the opportunities for us?

Hartung: Well, I guess, for the opportunities is that we continue to develop our technology. That’s a huge opportunity. But regard to population health, Dora, which you’re so involved in, I definitely hope that we are able to take populations like people with diabetes and that we have a greater healthcare or health ability to serve them in a way, as a group. One of my friends was just taken to the emergency room because of a diabetic shock and I know you’ve talked about this before, but how do we serve the diabetic population? Or the children with asthma? These are the big population centers, I consider, that we are faced with and so, how do we serve these populations or any episodic or chronic illness? How do we do it? I think that’s our huge challenge. I don’t think we’ve got it there yet and we have a long ways to go. A long ways to go. And that’s what you’re about, Dora, so good luck.

Barilla:And a lot of the listeners of today’s podcast are right there with us, so thank you for highlighting those. So, with Providence Saint Joseph Health being one of the largest not-for-profit healthcare organizations in the country, and with our rich legacy and our new strategy, what role do you think we can play in really modeling for the future to ensure that we are serving the poor?

Hartung: That is a really, really tough question, because I think every Catholic healthcare system is wrestling with that question right now. As I mentioned, our resources are going to be limited. I would hope that Providence Saint Joseph, in their strategy, takes a look at everything to see that we have resources to take care of the poor and vulnerable. This is going to be really tough.

Hartung: I think that’s what our strategy 2000 zero is all about is, how is it that we’re going to manage our resources to take care of the poor and vulnerable? We will never, never walk away from our mission, I will tell you that. If we do, I suspect the sponsors will say, “It’s time to give it to somebody else,” because our one commitment is that we will be faithful and whatever that takes that’s what we’re going to do.

Barilla:Well, I can’t think of a better way to leave today and the conversation with those incredible pieces of wisdom, Sister Susanne, but just want to give you the opportunity to top that with any final comments.

Hartung: I don’t know that I can top anything. I guess I have such an appreciation for all of our leaders and caregivers who are on the same page, trying to figure this all out. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, in the next few years, at all, but can I tell you, it hasn’t been easy for the last 175 years. So, I think we have to stay focused. We have to be committed. We have to be desirable of finding ways to serve the poor and the vulnerable and those in our communities and that means everybody. When I talk about the poor and vulnerable I really am talking about everybody.

Hartung: So, thanks, Dora, for the opportunity to share this time with you.

Barilla: Well, thank you to Sister Susanne for joining us today and to everyone for listening. Make sure to follow Providence Saint Joseph Health on social media. PSJH on Twitter and Instagram and Providence Saint Joseph Health on Facebook. We really want to thank you for the time today and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. Have a blessed day.



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  1. Eileen Barsi

    What a wonderful beginning to our Stakeholder Health podcast platform: grounded in a mission to serve the poor and the vulnerable envisioning the promotion of health as the path that will lead to a better world. Thank you Dora and Sister Susanne.

    • Tom Peterson

      Thanks, Eileen. I agree. And great to hear from you!


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