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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Rita Battles

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-10

Rita Battles of Boston has brought to Brooklyn her skills and reputation as a turnaround technocrat.

"I am a consummate team player," Ms. Battles, president and CEO of Long Island College Hospital, said. "My grandfather always told me, 'There's no i in the word team.' The key to organizational transformation is managing resources and developing management competencies and tools - which generate strong team work. If you're only pursuing an individualized agenda, you're not likely to get far. My grandfather was a wise man. He instilled in me how important it was to give back to the community at every level and in all you do."

She's been applying her grandfather's aphorisms for a year now, and already the hospital - widely known as Lich - is on its way to breaking even this year. That is a dramatic turnaround indeed for a not-for-profit institution whose $300 million annual budget must be bound through voluntary contributions and philanthropy, like most other hospitals.

Being a team player, of course has been one contributing factor in Ms. Battles's success, albeit a significant one at a 149-year-old hospital packed with hugely talented physicians and a supporting staff of hundreds - they put aside their differences and quirks in the cause of re-energizing the 500-bed hospital under her leadership.

"They were looking for a leader," Ms. Battles said. "They were ready for me, and I was ready for them. I believe I've been very blessed throughout my career to be presented with great opportunities to 'make a difference' in health care delivery systems at all levels."

She certainly made a difference in her previous job. As president of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, she spearheaded the raising of the additional $29 million needed to rehabilitate the bottom line in record time. She oversaw significant growth and revitalization of services, and directed an operational turnaround, reversing multi-year operating losses. Indeed, Ms. Battles expanded the center's medical staff. She also launched a $150 million renovation and construction initiative.

And before than, as interim president and CEO of Worcester Medical Center-St. Vincent's Hospital, she led a similar operational turnaround. By the time she moved to the University of Massachusetts, the center had achieved the highest score in patient satisfaction among 117 Tenet Healthcare hospitals.

Operational turnaround was also accomplished when Ms. Battles was chief operating officer of Metro West Medical Center in Massachusetts, administrative director for clinical services for New England Medical Center, and associate hospital director for Boston City Hospital.

So, besides fiscal recovery, what exactly does "operational turnaround" involve at medical facilities?

"It means enhancing an institution's ability to control costs, access, develop strategies and promote clinical programs that impact on both the community need and improved patient outcomes," Ms. Battles said. "Operational turnaround isn't just a one time hit. It means instituting a sustainable culture and competence that strengthens and supports a facility today and into the future."

"We want to make Lich the 'gem of Brooklyn,'" she added.

If that sounds like an ambitious statement it's because Ms. Battles, one of six children of Cathleen and William Edward Battles of Boston, has what she calls Irish determination. And if her statement suggests that she wants to strengthen the nexus between Lich and the borough, it's because she fiercely believes that the concept of a strong family should be extended to the community.

"Another thing that my grandfather taught us - you're never alone when you have your family around you," Ms. Battles said. "I've never had an agenda other than helping people. New York is such a wonderful place to be but Brooklyn is even more diverse, ethnically and culturally than almost any where on earth. Brooklyn has been so welcoming and embracing of me, my joining here has been a joy. It allows me to be doing well by doing good."

She acknowledged that it wasn't just her undergraduate education at Boston College that prepared her for a career in public service. Ms. Battles obtained an MBA at Suffolk University in Boston; that experience has served her well in various assignments.

But the assignment that perhaps best honed her natural affinity for figures and her people skills was a three-year stint with the erstwhile consulting firm of Ernst and Young. As a senior manager in the health-care department, Ms. Battles specialized in the design and post-merger integration of hospital systems, and advised institutions on corporate, business and technology strategies.

Some of those institutions were hospitals in New York. So by the time she accepted the Lich position, Ms. Battles was already familiar with the city's medical scene.

"Many hospitals, not only in New York but all across America, are facing crisis on multiple fronts today," she said. "They are being squeezed by insufficient payments, plagued by histories of deficit, layoffs, poor leadership or patient access issues, with growing infrastructure and technology replacement needs. All of our societal problems become magnified - and dealt with daily by hospitals - when there are overcrowded emergency rooms, homelessness, mental health issues, uninsured populations all coming for aid and assistance when there is nowhere else to go."

Wasn't she daunted by such problems in New York, where their scale seems so much larger than in Massachusetts?

"I am a person of passion," Ms. Battles said. "I do my best work through passion. I am driven to make a difference - everybody has their own internal barometer. Mine is what I did to help others. I truly believe in extending a helping hand to the less fortunate. That's what makes me come to work every single day. I believe that I am going to make a difference for the Brooklyn community."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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