Q&A with Pam Davis
Retiring longtime Edward-Elmhurst Health CEO
Soon to retire after a distinguished career in hospital administration at Edward-Elmhurst Health, Pam Davis led the transformation of Edward
Hospital from its small community roots into a major regional healthcare organization employing a staff of 8,500 and with $1.25 billion in revenues. Known for both her tenacity and integrity, Davis was the major force in guiding the hospital through an unprecedented period of growth, during an era when she was one of the few female hospital CEOs in the country. Davis came into the national spotlight in 2003, when she reported a “pay-to-play” scheme impacting hospital expansion plans.
Outraged that corruption might stymie progress in the critical field of healthcare, she contacted the FBI and even wore a wire to help collect evidence that would ultimately expose illegal
extortion. Raised in the western suburbs, Davis now makes her home in Naperville.
Your parents were both doctors. Were you ever tempted to take that path?
PD: No. I would go with my parents in the early days when doctors used to actually make house calls and do the rounds at hospitals. And I was fascinated more with how the system worked than with taking care of people. I found it fascinating, but no, I did not want to be in the clinical end.
Did you consider a career track other than hospital administration?
PD: I was going to go into hotel-motel management but then I liked the complex nature of larger institutions. I found it more compelling, and somehow I liked the mission of doing important work. Although as a child, I thought I was going to be a prima ballerina! [laughs]
Wasn’t healthcare at that time an extremely male-dominated field?
PD: I was the only female in my Masters class. One of my male classmates said to me, you’re taking a spot from someone who will actually run a hospital! And I have served longer than anyone else in my class of men. It truly is about 50/50 men-to-women now. But I was certainly an anomaly at the time.
You described yourself earlier in your career as “young and impatient, with lots of ideas.” What turned you into a leader?
PD: Yes, that sounds like me. Now I’m old and impatient with fewer ideas. [laughs] As corny as this sounds, I do think most people want to do the right thing. If you can put a case in front of people that is scientifically based, and you can engage them into wanting to get that done, success starts building on itself. And there are so many different ways for different people. Sometimes it’s simply about giving people the flexibility to do things their way. Sometimes it’s allowing for mistakes without punishment. It’s having fun. You know, celebrating a lot of small accomplishments that over time become ingrained in the way things are done. You end up with lots of talented people wanting to come up with good ideas and implement them.
Was there someone in particular who inspired you?
PD: People I work with. Every single leader I ended up hiring was someone who had a similar philosophy to me. They were independent workers — and I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone what to do. We would do our strategic planning, figure out what programs we could make an impact with, and recruit good people. We have excellent longevity with senior leaders. Even though it’s a hard job and it’s serious work, there’s a sense of enjoyment. I think I have brought a sense of fun — appropriate fun — when we’re working together.
It sounds as though that perspective has served you well.
PD: Yes, I think it has served me very well. Being a good sport. Being a good citizen. Not being a power monger, which is what I saw a lot of.
Speaking of power mongering, can you tell a little about your experience with “pay to play” back in 2003, when you reported conflicts of interest at the hospital to the FBI? Was that your motivation — to be a good person?
PD: Oh, yes, to be a good citizen. At the time, I was a firm believer in good government and I still am. I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to developing countries, and I’ve met good, talented people everywhere. But the thing that always hits me is that if you don’t have an infrastructure that works, then talent is just wasted and lost. For all of its ills, the U.S. government is very good and stable . . . well, I’m saying this now laughing, very tongue-in-cheek with Trump in office. [laughs] You know, as a child, reading stories of the underground railroad, or Anne Frank, or people who saved Jews from the Nazis, I thought that maybe I could do something like that, maybe I could be very clever and make a difference, maybe I could save even one child. So when opportunity came, I thought, ‘Oh, I always said I would stand up and do good, and, by god, I’m going to!’
Did you think of yourself as being courageous at the time?
PD: No, I just thought I was doing what any good citizen should. I didn’t realize it was going to take so long or go up as high as it did.
And do you think your actions helped put safeguards in place so that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again within the hospital?
Well, no. As with saving one child, this was one episode. I think every institution has to have its own checks and balances in place. You know, the government will forever have pockets of corruption, sadly. So, no, I don’t think I made an impact, except in this one situation.
As you come up on retirement, is there anything more you wish you had been able to do? What are you handing off to your successors?
PD: Oh my gosh, there is so much more that can be achieved. I think the exciting element going forward is the tremendous work being done on genetics. I think there is going to be another huge transformation. Drugs will be geared to work on each patient’s particular genetic code. Things will be more efficient. For instance, take treatments for depression, where we start a patient on a drug that doesn’t work and have to cycle through several to find one that does. There are a lot of inefficiencies, to say nothing of the toll it takes on patients. Drug treatments tailored to genetics are going to be impressive. And there’s a huge amount of work in stem-cell research that perhaps will help regenerate organs or ligaments. It’s truly an exciting time.
Do you also see challenges ahead?
PD: Here’s what’s wrong with healthcare. We spend too much money because we as a society do not want to tackle the issues. We say, here’s the amount of money we can spend, so let’s put
a budget together. As an administrator, you have to force yourself to spend that money where it is most efficacious. So if you have a 90-year-old who wants heart surgery — I’m not saying that’s good or bad — we cannot necessarily afford that, because it takes money away from someone younger who also needs costly treatments.
Do you think the hospital has a role to play in those decisions?
PD: People in America do not like talking about good and bad in making these kinds of choices. And so we waste and waste and waste in the final six months of life when everyone knows it’s futile. It’s not free. It is not free. I can say this since I won’t be working at Edward-Elmhurst much longer, but many people will find it religiously untenable or say that it’s mean-spirited. Who are you to make a judgment? But the fact that we don’t make a judgment is having a huge impact on the amount of money we spend. And you don’t hear anyone saying, gee, I hope I’m taxed 50 percent so that we can take care of way too many people. I mean, with the longevity of the population, it truly is a mess. You know, financially, our system is tremendously broken. So going forward, I leave that in the hands of my very talented colleagues.
For Edward-Elmhurst, do you envision the same trajectory of growth in coming years that you experienced during your tenure?
PD: Right now, we are still experiencing growth in patients who are admitted and patients outside the hospital. There certainly is a push, an appropriate push, to do something called ‘population
management.’ That’s where admin as well as physicians are incentivized to keep people out of the hospital setting. But that curve is going to take several years to occur. In the meantime, patients are living longer and coming to the hospital for a variety of treatments — pneumonia, orthopedic work, cardiac work. We are trying to impact the population through lifestyle changes, better eating, knowing genetically early on what patients may have a proclivity for. Over time those patients, hopefully, will not have to have the same intensity of services.
Does that mean you envisage healthcare reaching out into the community at earlier stages?
PD: Yes. And some hospitals, certainly not yet in DuPage county, are looking at housing and at food — bringing fresh food into communities. It’s less expensive and more efficient to do that than to wait and have somebody with, you know, an amputation because of uncontrolled diabetes. I think it is a good trend, but as with every shift, running two systems simultaneously is always difficult.
Will you stay involved with the hospital at any level?
PD: No. I honestly believe that is not a good thing to do. I have loved it here. I’ll certainly see people from this place. But no, I don’t think that’s a good thing for a leader to do.
You’ve spent your life in the Chicago suburbs. Do you ever wish you had taken off for other places?
PD: I’m actually very adventuresome, but there’s something I like about knowing the history of a place. I was raised in this area and have raised my kids here. This is where I can make an impact on people who I feel are my neighbors. There’s that sense that I’ve given back to people I know. Maybe that’s not as noble as giving back to someone I don’t know. But for me, it makes me feel good.
Where are our readers likely to bump into you when you’re out and about in the suburbs?
PD: Oh gosh. I live in Naperville and can walk to work at Edward but have done that only once. I just haven’t gotten into that healthy lifestyle. [laughs] I love walking through North Central College, so people might see me there. I love restaurants, and taking my grandkids out for lunch or dinner. Sadly, I’m a shopper, so that’s possible. And I do volunteer. I’d like to work with children, maybe teaching English as a foreign language.
Three words that best describe you?
Competitive, generous and I think I’m kind.
Books on your bedside table?
I’m an avid, avid reader. There are 15 books on my bedside table and I also read on Kindle. I love WWII books and memoirs. But I read garbage as well!
Three tips for effective leadership?
The ability to say you’re sorry. Truly being interested in the people you work with and wanting them to succeed. And a sense of joy.
Three things you look forward to in retirement?
I want to reinvent myself. I want to develop some hobbies, and there’s some sadness in that. And I want to give back. I want to teach English as a second language.
Best reason to go downtown?
Architecture. I love the landscape of the city and I love the lake.
Biggest changes you’ve seen in Naperville?
Growth and diversity. People may laugh, but there is diversity we may not always see.
Sharing a sense of the joy and fun that we have. Don’t expect that I’m normal. There are so many people in healthcare who really are traditional, and that was never too much fun for me.