Welcome, Sharon O’Keefe: Medical Center Meets Its New President

Photos by Bruce Powell

Sharon O'Keefe, the new president of the University of Chicago Medical Center, meets Lajuan Bryant and Tracie Williams, Medical Center public safety officers, at O'Keefe's welcome reception in DCAM's fourth floor atrium. After giving her remarks, O'Keefe spent the rest of the evening meeting employees who came to the reception.

By Jennifer Martin and Cheryl L. Reed

The Medical Center welcomed Sharon O’Keefe, its new president, with special receptions February 25 and March 3 in the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine.

O’Keefe joined the Medical Center on February 23 and has spent her first days meeting people throughout the organization. During the reception, O’Keefe thanked the Medical Center community for its warm welcome.

“The more people I meet, the more excited I become about having the opportunity to work at this premier organization,” she told employees, faculty, staff and senior leaders in a public address. “For the next four to six weeks, I will spend much of my time out in the hospital, continuing to meet new people. It’s very important to me to touch and feel the organization, to see people in their working environments and to understand the needs, goals and potential new frontiers for the Medical Center.”

A nationally recognized authority on hospital operations, O’Keefe said she was excited to join the Medical Center as president because of the university’s reputation as a leader in translational research, bringing discoveries from the laboratory to the bedside in order to deliver the best patient care in Chicago and the nation.

O’Keefe plans to continue meeting staff in their workplace and talking to patients and employees about the care experience at the Medical Center. At least one patient was surprised when his e-mail to O’Keefe resulted in a personal visit to his room: “It’s encouraging that the person at the very top, less than a week into a new job, values patient input enough to take time out of what has to be a very busy week to listen to a patient,” Joseph Seeley wrote on his public blog, “Joe’s Blasts.”

O’Keefe says she also will use her time with staff, faculty and employees to discuss her key goals, which include enhancing the entire patient experience and increasing patient satisfaction; improving the employee experience; planning for the  opening of the New Hospital Pavilion; implementing integrated IT systems, including the electronic records system; as well as growing clinical programs.

O’Keefe says she values clear communication and hopes to engage employees in a number of ways, including weekly e-mails to all staff, as well as utilizing technologies across campus, such as flat-screen TVs to distribute information and computer screen savers to convey key messages.

Kenneth Polonsky, MD, dean and executive vice president for Medical Affairs, said O’Keefe was chosen from an initial list of 20 people, which the search committee narrowed to eight finalists.

“The committee was particularly impressed with Sharon,” said Polonsky, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences and Pritzker School of Medicine. “She is a nationally recognized authority on hospital operations and also offers a depth of experience in health care quality, patient satisfaction and employee engagement.” He noted that O’Keefe, who started her career as a nurse, also has a unique understanding of clinical operations within a hospital setting.

Polonsky and O’Keefe were colleagues at Barnes Jewish Hospital, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he served as physician-in-chief and O’Keefe served as chief operating officer.

“Sharon was an outstanding partner,” he said. “We dealt successfully with many challenges that are common to hospitals nationwide, including high patient populations in the Emergency Room and a heavy demand for Operating Room facilities. We always were able to find common ground to address these issues and move in a positive direction.”

Those who attended a reception said they were impressed by her enthusiasm and background.

“I really like her,” said Ivori Simon, who works in Environmental Services. “I’m excited that she’s the first female president of the Medical Center, and I’m glad that she’s willing to meet personally with everyone to determine what our needs are.”

Sue French, RN, MSN, acting chief nursing officer, said she is particularly pleased to have a nurse at the helm. “We want to move forward with nursing excellence initiatives, and our nursing staff is really excited and engaged in advancing nursing here,” French said. “I think Sharon O’Keefe is going to be an excellent person to work with on these initiatives.”

Bruce Minsky, MD, chief quality officer, said he knows O’Keefe as a collaborative leader who is able to build consensus across a wide range of departments.

“She has expert leadership skills, as well as an ability to connect in a personal way with individuals at all levels of an organization,” he said. “She is an exceptional choice for the Medical Center.”