The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


March 3, 2014

What new CEO sees in Windber's future

WINDBER — A decade ago, Windber Medical Center was attracting national attention for its patient-centered care and holistic medicine that featured music, massage, aroma and pet therapies; the Planetree philosophy of treating mind, body and spirit; and hotel industry-trained staff.

Newly appointed interim President and CEO Thomas Kurtz says the same culture continues today, and he’s on a mission to spread the good news.

“We’ve got to breathe the excitement back into Windber,” Kurtz said Monday.

Kurtz said the hospital community is drawing on its own advertising slogan from a few years ago: “Don’t be surprised.”

Despite financial struggles and falling patient numbers, Windber has remained committed to the programs that set it apart from other community hospitals: integrative medicine, hospice-palliative care, Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, HealthStyles fitness-rehabilitation center and others, Kurtz said.

“It’s still here,” he said. “We have not brought it forward and played to its strength.”

Kurtz was named CEO on Wednesday, replacing Barbara Cliff after nearly five years at the helm.

He did not specifically cite any shortcomings during Cliff’s tenure, but Kurtz mentioned many of the innovations introduced by Cliff’s predecessor, F. Nicholas Jacobs.

Jacobs stepped down in 2008 after almost 12 years as president and CEO at Windber.

“I can’t Monday morning quarterback on this thing,” Kurtz said. “There were a lot of good things being done in the last five years. It’s a tough business to be in right now.”

Despite the “interim” prefix to his title, Kurtz stressed that the hospital is not in a holding pattern.

“I don’t want any confusion,” he said.

“My role is interim, not inactive. We are going pedal to the metal to further the Windber Medical Center agenda.”

Cliff’s last day on the job was Friday. At 10 p.m. Saturday, Kurtz was walking the halls to see what he’d gotten himself into.

After talking with patients employees and family members, he was pleased.

“Everyone had positive comments,” Kurtz said. “I think the opportunities are huge. We don’t have huge problems; we have to do some tweaking.”

One employee talked about the hospital’s commitment to the integrative medicine programs, such as yoga, reiki and medical acupuncture.

“She said what makes her proud is that we still do those things,” he said. “It was not the first place Windber made cuts.”

There was never a thought of cutting those programs, Kurtz said, noting he has worked with Windber Medical Center for 15 years, first as a Conemaugh Health System executive when Windber was affiliated with the Johnstown organization, and then as Windber Research Institute’s president and CEO.

“That’s so entrenched in this culture you can’t pull it out,” he said. “It is not stuck on any title or based on one or two people. It’s like everyday life here.”

It is good news for patients, Kurtz said, but it’s also good news for Windber’s future at a time when the health care industry is moving toward a reimbursement system based on prevention, good outcomes and patient satisfaction.  

“That’s what health reform is looking for,” he said. “That’s our mantra. That’s what we do. Windber is positioned perfectly to take advantage of that.”

But some changes are necessary, and they are coming, he noted.

Plans for an expanded emergency room have been approved by the board and financing is in the final phase. There are several reasons why the expansion is crucial, he said.

“The ER is the front door to the place,” he said, noting that short wait-times, a skilled and caring professional staff and quality care are already combining to keep the emergency department busy.

“But they deserve to be treated in the best environment with the most up-to-date facility,” he said. “That’s the piece we are missing.”

By enhancing the emergency department, integrative medicine and other areas where Windber shines, the organization will be able to approach potential strategic partners from a position of strength. And strategic partnerships with larger organizations will be crucial to the future, Kurtz said.

“Windber’s challenges are the same as all small community hospitals in this country: relatively low patient volumes that make it difficult to manage the high fixed costs of operating a hospital,” Kurtz said. “This, in turn, makes us particularly vulnerable to policy and market changes, and to Medicare and Medicaid payment cuts.”

Teaming with the right organization can assure a better future.

“We are going to make sure it is the right partner that fits the mission of the hospital,” he said.

Success will start with support from the community, local independent physicians and elected officials, he continued, stressing his commitment to work with local doctors.

“This is going to become a physicians’ hospital,” he said. “A hospital where doctors want to come and practice and a place where they want to send their patients.”

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at


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