Spokane Journal of Business

Q&A with new Providence chief executive Joel Gilbertson

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-Virginia Thomas

Joel Gilbertson became regional chief executive for Washington and Montana and executive vice president at Providence Health & Services on March 1. 

The 48-year-old East Coast native succeeds Elaine Couture, who retired last month after a decade in that role. 

Gilbertson hails from Maryland, where he advanced through degrees in political science, public health, and law. He served as legislative counsel in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, of Alaska, for whom he focused on health and social policy while Murkowski served on the Senate Finance Committee.

He then moved to Alaska to become commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services, and in 2005, he joined Providence as its Alaska-based regional director of strategy and business development. He advanced through the organization, eventually moving to its headquarters in Renton, Washington.

Gilbertson and his family now are house hunting in Spokane, and Gilbertson says he’s eager to get to know the city.

 

Why did you get into health care and public health?

I come from a family of health care professionals. My mother was a nursing supervisor for the county general hospital in Montgomery County, Maryland. My father was a pharmacist, a PharmD. 

I was a slight renegade, going off to law school, but by the end of my first year of law school, I had started doing a joint degree, which was a master’s in public health.

I originally started deep diving into health care as public policy. I started working in the U.S. Senate right after Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Back then, BBA was a big, disruptive, and impactful part of health care redesign and introduced a number of changes into how Medicare was organized. Through a series of strange life circumstances, I began working for a senator from the state of Alaska. That’s when I fell in love with the work.

I was in roles where I was able to see the direct connection between the policies we were working on and how they impacted individuals’ access to care. I was blessed to be able to move from that into a role where I was working on direct public health. I love all of the things we deal with in health care, but my real passion is public health.

 

As we move toward higher COVID-19 vaccination rates, what’s the next step for the health care industry, especially in Spokane?

We’re not at the finish line of this pandemic yet. Even when we get people vaccinated, even when we’re all walking around without masks on our faces, we’re not out of it yet. That’s something that I take very seriously in this role.

This is still a growing community, and there are still access needs. I think things you’ll see are continued investments into primary care and to access points, to make sure that individuals can access care as seamlessly as possible. We have a number of system initiatives around telehealth and other programs, and making sure that those are available and integrated into our clinical programs across the system. The big work is going to be rebuilding our health care infrastructure to support the community health challenges we face.

One of the things I’m most excited about in being able to move into a role here in Spokane is that this isn’t trying to build something, this is building upon something. This is a community that has always had wonderful partnerships — partnerships between the private sector, partnerships with government, partnerships with the educational organizations in this part of the state, partnerships between businesses. Our role is to lean in and to continue to find ways in which we can partner.

It’ll look different as time goes on, but coming out of this pandemic, all focus has to be on how we take care of our own caregivers. We’ve talked a lot internally about how there’s a phase of healing that has to come after the last year. 

 

What will Providence focus on as we move toward the end of the pandemic? 

It’s been an incredibly tough time for caregivers. Certainly, in my first 45 days but also going forward, I think an area we’re focused on is how we address the challenges and the burden that this last year has placed upon caregivers.

I think the next biggest challenge is going to be addressing some of the financial impact of the last year. It’s not inconsequential to respond to a pandemic, as a large health care system. The costs to respond to needs went up and a significant portion of revenue went away as we turned off large parts of the delivery system to conserve PPE and to support preparation for the surge.

Even now, in the return to more normal operating models, it’s not back to where it was. It’s much more financially tenuous. While the economics of health care are probably more complex than they need to be, I think, at a very simple level, most people understand that when your costs go up, but when you’re not seeing as many people in whatever you do, it makes it harder to balance everything out. Thankfully, there have been a number of important efforts over the last year, including the CARES Act, that helped to stabilize financials — not fully, but partially.

It’s one of the great things about being part of Providence, you have a lot of history — 162 years — behind you. Things have come and gone — world wars, great depressions, pandemics, flus — but there’s a great heritage to build upon. We’ll get through this, and what we build going forward will be better, and hopefully with an eye toward ensuring that the next time a pandemic surfaces, we’re all better prepared to continue to meet needs but also deliver a higher level of service to the community.

 

How does Spokane differ from other markets that Providence is in?

Spokane is wonderful. You always have to be careful when you compare to other markets. It’s kind of like talking about your kids. We have wonderful service areas.

I think of the things that make Spokane wonderful, particularly working within Providence. One is the tremendous amount of community collaboration that’s underway. I can’t think of another community that has as much natural collaboration between the public sector and the private sector, even within the various organizations. The starting point is collaboration, and that’s wonderful. 

Are there other communities that organize and have collaboratives? Of course, but I’m not aware of any that have as many formal, active, edge-of-your-seat, elbows-on-the-table number of organizations and leaders leaning in, all trying to work together toward a common goal. That’s something that’s an asset to this community and a real testament to leaders who came before, who put community first. 

This community, save for some very rare circumstances, can deliver nearly every type of care without the patient having to get on a plane. The health care delivery system and the services offered in Spokane are exceptional from a quality perspective, and they’re exceptional from an experience standpoint. 

That’s something to be proud of, that we have that level of quality and that level of skill here in this community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the banking and finance industries. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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