Lorraine Lutton inherits an organization that's trying to recover from multiple wounds during the past two years, including one of its former doctors being charged with killing patients in its hospitals; a series of related wrongful death lawsuits; and an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease at its new Mount Carmel Grove City hospital. The new leader's challenge is clear. Fortunately, turnarounds are Lutton's specialty.

As a teenage candy-striper at a West Virginia hospital near her home, Lorraine Lutton quickly noticed some problems. 

She’d push patients in wheelchairs to a physical therapy room, where they’d wait for a physical therapist to become available. After their session they’d wait some more, for Lutton to retrieve them and take them back to their rooms. 

“It was such an inefficient system,” Lutton remembers. “I kept suggesting: Why not have the therapists go to the patient’s room? Why not modify the process to make it better for the patient? I didn’t get very far, as you can imagine.”

Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.

But the experience sparked an interest in Lutton, one that has stayed with her throughout her working life: How can health care be changed for the better for patients? 

Lutton brought that passion to Columbus in April, when she became the new CEO for Mount Carmel Health System. She is its first laywoman leader in its nearly 135-year history—there have been women CEOs, all of whom were Sisters of the Holy Cross, while all the organization’s men CEOs have been laymen.

Leading a health system at a time when the industry is more complex than ever is a major challenge to begin with, but Lutton, 54, began her new job this spring, a particularly notable time for health care, and Mount Carmel in particular. Nationally, Covid-19 was beginning to spread and in Ohio, life was beginning to shut down to keep the pandemic in check. 

Mount Carmel itself was trying to recover from more than a year of controversy that began in December 2018 when one of its intensive-care physicians, Dr. William Husel, was accused of ordering excessive painkiller doses for 34 patients. A Franklin County grand jury indicted him on 25 counts of murder in June 2019, and he is awaiting trial. 

The accusations spawned numerous lawsuits against the health system and prompted Mount Carmel to fire more than 20 employees. CEO Ed Lamb resigned in July 2019, replaced by interim CEO Michael Englehart. 

The system also had an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at Mount Carmel Grove City in 2019, resulting in one death, and it suffered the sudden death of Michael Wilkins, president of Mount Carmel East hospital, in September 2019. 

There is a lot of healing to be done for Mount Carmel, led by its new chief executive.

“We needed someone with a deep background in quality and quality improvement,” says businessman Jordan Hansell, chairman of the Mount Carmel board and president of hotel developer Rockbridge. “We thought the ability to be thoughtful and agile was critical, and we wanted someone who would be steadfast but strong, who could take the organization from the position it found itself in to where we know it can be.” 

Hansel says Lutton has an active mind and a calming spirit, a combination Mount Carmel needs. 

“Mount Carmel is an organization in transition, in a world in transition, and her ability to stay calm and think clearly is a real positive,” he says. “She has a certain restlessness and is always seeking to improve.”

This won’t be the first time Lutton has been asked to turn an organization around.

After graduating with an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles, Lutton took a job in quality improvement at a California medical center before heading to Tampa to work for St. Joseph’s Hospital. Lutton began her work there in quality control and eventually became president of the facility. After 24 years, she was lured in 2016 to Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston, South Carolina, to help the system overcome financial and management problems. 

“We were at a time of evolution,” says Dr. Stanley Wilson, vice president and chief medical officer at Roper St. Francis. “Everyone was pointing fingers. She entered into a very challenging medical situation.” 

Lutton, Wilson says, was approved unanimously for the job by an all-male selection team, besting several male candidates and becoming the system’s first female CEO. 

“She came in, looked at everything, and began working on building relationships,” Wilson says. “She was very visible and involved, and she made it clear her focus was on quality. At our leadership meetings, we always talked about quality, about what we could do better.”

Lutton is skilled at connecting with employees who work on the front lines, says Andy Lyons, director of corporate communications for Roper St. Francis. She’d schedule time each week in a different part of the hospital so she could immerse herself in how each facet of care worked and talk with workers about how it could be improved, he says. 

“She’d look at how linens got delivered or she was cleaning an operating room and figuring out how that was done,” Lyons says. “She lived it.” 

Wilson says Lutton’s door was open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., and she welcomed suggestions. She set up focus groups with physicians “to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly” and perpetuated a culture of physician engagement and leadership training. 

“I feel she did turn the ship around,” Wilson says. “We’re in an extremely competitive hospital situation, and yet in many areas we’re the market leader. We focus on the things we do well.”

Lutton already is working at Mount Carmel to listen to its 9,000 employees through virtual town halls, a special email program and a diversity series of virtual talks. Her normal style is to have in-person group meetings, but the pandemic has eliminated that possibility for now. 

“It’s not the same as shaking hands and having large, open forums where people are gathered together to talk and share ideas,” she says. “But I think it’s been helpful for people to get together virtually and be able to ask questions of leadership. You have to encourage people to do that and create opportunities for that engagement, which is what I’m focusing on.”

Lutton wants every Mount Carmel staff member to think about and act on improving the organization’s patient care every day. 

“My philosophy of leadership is all about continuous improvement. How do we change the process to continue to improve the care we’re providing? What we did yesterday ended at midnight. What are we going to do today to make care better? That requires every colleague to be thinking about that, to be sharing their ideas, to be actively engaged, not just with their hands but with their minds as well, so we can move forward faster.”

She’s mindful that one of her challenges is to ameliorate the damage to Mount Carmel’s reputation by the patient deaths in the Husel case. 

“A reputation is built on every interaction, so every interaction our patients have with every one of our physicians and every one of our colleagues every day has got to be high quality,” Lutton says. “It’s got to meet the needs of the patient, and it’s got to be a positive interaction. That is, first and foremost, how we’re going to rebuild trust.”

Beyond that, she says the health system must look for ways to engage with patients differently so they know Mount Carmel will meet their needs differently. 

“We have a lot of great care going on, and we need to build on those areas of excellence and ensure that the whole organization is lifted in a positive way through those centers of excellence,” she says. Those include the system’s Street Medicine program, which provides free urgent medical care to Central Ohioans who are uninsured or underinsured; its innovative cardiovascular services; and its pediatric and obstetrics services, Lutton says. 

Lutton hopes to schedule meetings with area business leaders to find out how Mount Carmel is perceived and how it can better meet the needs of the communities served by its hospitals: Flagships Mount Carmel East, Mount Carmel St. Ann’s and Mount Carmel Grove City; plus surgical hospital Mount Carmel New Albany and freestanding ER Diley Ridge Medical Center in Canal Winchester, which it owns jointly with Fairfield Medical Center.

She’s already linked up with the other hospital systems in the area through cooperative efforts to provide care during the pandemic, such as helping to set up an emergency hospital facility at the convention center and providing Covid testing for the community. 

Hansell says Lutton has quickly formed a deeply educated view of the challenges and opportunities at Mount Carmel. She’s changed around the responsibilities of her leadership team and already has proved to be an empathetic leader who is defining a clear plan for improving the system, he says.

“She’s decisive, but balances that with a willingness to be responsive and listen to feedback and dialogue,” says Hansell. “The team needs to be on board, and she’s done a nice job of ensuring that in a short period of time.” 

One of her goals is to increase the influence and leadership that physicians have at Mount Carmel, something she worked on at Roper St. Francis. “I believe that physician engagement is essential to our success,” she says. “Physicians want to have meaningful influence and feel valued as members of the team. Mount Carmel has some of this going on now, but we need to grow and strengthen it so physicians feel engaged with the opportunities and the work we have to do here.”

Lutton also wants the system to be in the top quartile of all measurements of patient satisfaction, clinical outcomes and financial performance, be a preferred employer in the area and have all of its hospitals achieve a five-star rating from the national Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The hospitals’ ratings now range from three to four stars. 

Lutton was heavily involved in community organizations at her two previous jobs, including the local chamber of commerce, a performing arts center, numerous health care organizations and a regional development alliance.

So far, the pandemic has limited her ability to find her community niche in Columbus. 

“I have an interest in a lot of things, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get exposed to opportunities here,” she says. “My experience has been to be involved in a lot of activities and boards.”

In her free time, she and her husband of 30 years, Andy, like to hike, boat and travel to the national parks. Lutton also is a runner, with a goal to complete at least 500 miles this year, and an avid reader. 

Andy Lutton has a part-time position as executive director of an affordable-housing nonprofit in Tampa and spends much of his time in Columbus volunteering for Meals-On-Wheels and the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. The couple lives in a Downtown apartment but is buying a home in German Village. Their three adult children live in Washington, D.C., and Tampa.

Lutton says she’s excited about what’s ahead for Mount Carmel.

“My focus is moving the organization forward,” she says. “We are going to be caring and interacting with our patients in different ways, in digital ways, and looking at how we can grow our ambulatory interactions with patients. There are a lot of exciting things going on and I’m focused on the future.”

***

Q&A

Lorraine Lutton began her new role leading Mount Carmel just as the pandemic was setting in. She says she found a caring, highly engaged team.

You came to Mount Carmel in April just as the pandemic was hitting Ohio. What have your first few months on the job been like?
It was really exciting when I first came because it was right in the middle of the Covid [crisis], and the command structure we had in place was great, with incredible caregivers who are passionate about what they’re doing to provide safe, quality care. Everybody was inspired and energetic and really doing incredible, mission-driven work. That was the introduction, and it was really helpful for me, to build our relationship together as a team to move the organization forward. 

What qualities do you have that lend themselves to helping Mount Carmel overcome recent challenges?
It’s difficult to talk about yourself, but I would say integrity. I’m very committed to transparency and inclusive decision-making. 

What convinced you to take this job?
It’s the opportunity to make a difference and work with a team of people to rebuild trust with the community and improve the work that we’re doing for the greater Columbus area. Mount Carmel has a few challenges, and my goal is to always work with a great team of people to improve patient care. I felt like it was the right fit for me at this time. 

You have three women now who are presidents of your full-service hospitals. Was that a purposeful choice, to select women for those positions?
We needed the right person to lead at this time who was the best fit for the roles we had. It wasn’t intentional to hire women, but to hire the right person. We are trying to downsize the number of people in executive positions, so rather than recruiting other people for open positions, we have rearranged our existing leaders. Now we have three female leaders heading our hospitals, and I think it’s working very well.