Spotlight on Donna Sollenberger, executive vice president and chief executive officer, UTMB Health System

Jul 17, 2017, 09:22 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
Sollenberger (middle) stands at the entrance to Jennie Sealy Hospital with Justin Sanchez and Cindy Jones, customer service representatives with Hospital Transportation Services.
Donna Sollenberger has served as executive vice president and chief executive officer of UTMB’s Health System since 2009. As CEO, she is responsible for providing strategic, operational and financial oversight for the health system, which includes a network of five hospitals, 70 clinics and a Correctional Managed Care program that provides health care to three-fourths of the state’s incarcerated.

Sollenberger has overseen an unprecedented expansion of UTMB health services, including the opening of the Jennie Sealy Hospital, League City Campus and its hospital, many new clinics throughout the region, and moving the Angleton Danbury Campus into the UTMB Health enterprise.

Under her leadership, UTMB has received numerous awards for increasing positive patient outcomes and achieved Magnet status for nursing excellence from the American Nurse Credentialing Center. Sollenberger was recognized as one of the top 25 women in health care by Modern Healthcare magazine in 2007.

On June 22, Sollenberger was officially appointed board chair of America’s Essential Hospitals, which is the leading association and champion for hospitals and health systems dedicated to high quality for all, including the most vulnerable.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Sollenberger to talk about her new role leading the board of the national organization, her experiences at UTMB, and a few lessons she’s learned along the way.
Impact: First off, congratulations on your appointment as chair of America’s Essential Hospitals—that is a very big deal! What issues is the organization focusing on right now, and what do you hope to accomplish over the next year?

Donna Sollenberger: There are many critical federal legislative issues facing essential hospitals. As an advocacy organization, America’s Essential Hospitals organizes our collective response to those issues.

Three issues stand out among the many for which we advocate. The organization is very involved in responding to the proposed American Health Care Act, which would replace or modify the Affordable Care Act. It is critical that essential hospitals have a voice in shaping related policies, such as who will be covered under the act and how health care providers, especially hospitals and physicians, will be reimbursed for care of Medicaid patients. We want to ensure that more Americans have access to health insurance and care.

We are also active in advocating for the continuation of the 340(b) drug pricing program, which provides pharmaceutical drugs at a discount to hospitals that meet certain program requirements.

Finally, we are involved in advocating for how the Medicaid program will be structured in the future, including alternative payment systems that may evolve from programs such as the Texas 1115 Medicaid Transformation Waiver program. [Editor’s note: UTMB anchors Region 2 of the Texas Medical Waiver program.]

Sollenberger speaks during the ribbon cutting ceremony for UTMB's Pediatric Primary Care Clinic and Pediatric Urgent Care Clinic in Galveston.Impact: This new role at the national level is in addition to your responsibilities at UTMB. As CEO of UTMB’s Health System, what do you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

DS: The greatest challenge is ensuring that we consistently and continuously provide access to high-quality, high-value health care to every patient, every time. If we efficiently and effectively deliver the safest, most patient-centered care, we not only see exceptional patient outcomes, but also lower costs. As a result, our finances most often improve.

When it comes to what I find most rewarding, I would have to say it is walking through the hospital and seeing our patients, visitors, staff and physicians. Doing this reminds me why we are all here and why we work so hard. When I am immersed in any aspect of the patient care environment, whether in terms of direct patient care delivery or work done behind the scenes, it helps me re-center and get into a mindset that allows me to overcome any challenges I’m facing that day.

Impact: Speaking of delivering high-quality health care to every patient, every time, the Best Care initiative has been UTMB’s No. 1 priority for nearly a year. What do you think about the progress made so far, and is Best Care here to stay?

DS: I think the progress that UTMB has made in the Best Care initiative is nothing short of remarkable. I remember my thoughts when I first heard about everything it would take to accomplish this goal within 15 months. I knew becoming a top 20 academic medical center in the Vizient Quality and Accountability Study was possible, but given such a short timeframe, I was a little concerned about the amount of work we had to accomplish to get there. When we reached 19th place at the end of only nine months, I was very happy, but not surprised. I believe in the resiliency, team spirit and “can do” attitude of everyone at UTMB—it is the reason we are so successful any time we set our minds to achieve a goal. Now we need to focus on maintaining and improving our position in the survey.

Like so many of our achievements, Best Care is not a one-time initiative. In the future, the health care industry will increasingly base payments to providers on their performance. Best Care and high value must be a way of life. Besides, don’t our patients deserve that?

Impact: You talk about Best Care and other strategic goals often in your weekly blog, the “Health System Friday Flash Report,” which has a large employee following. Have you always loved to write?

DS: I have always loved to write and to tell stories. In college, I realized how much I loved writing and reading complex literature. In fact, I loved it so much that I decided to change my major from pharmacy to literature. As a result, I became an English teacher who also had a ton of college credits in math and chemistry. In fact, when a chemistry teacher unexpectedly left the high school where I worked, the principal asked me if I would feel comfortable teaching that class in the fall, as well. I felt as if I had to say yes. Fortunately, they found a replacement just in time before the next semester started, so I did not have to do that!

Impact: Sounds like you could have taken your career in a variety of directions. Looking back over the years, what lessons have you learned that you are willing to share with readers?

DS: The first lesson came from my mother. She always believed in treating others with the care and respect they deserve. I have tried to live that advice my entire life. Everyone who works at UTMB is important. Titles really do not matter. What matters is that everyone who works here does their job well, and that they are treated with the respect and kindness they deserve.

I learned the second lesson from a patient. One day during the time I worked at MD Anderson, I was packing up my “homework” in my office. In my mind, it had been a pretty bad day, and I was in a pretty bad mood. I took the stairs down to the main lobby, and as I pushed open the door, I noticed a young family seated in the lobby, smiling and laughing. I could see the mother was a cancer patient. She wore a scarf on her head and was surrounded by the tubes connected to her IV pole. Anytime I start to feel I am having a bad day, I think about her and the many other brave and courageous patients and families I have met, and I put my issues into perspective.

The last lesson I learned was from my boss during my first hospital administrator job. He taught me the importance of getting to know the people that work with you. He told me that it is easy to lead when times are good, but when the going gets tough, you need to know people and they need to know you so that there is trust. They must trust you in order to follow you during uncertain and tumultuous times. That is a lesson that serves me well every day.

Impact: You’ve successfully helped lead UTMB during some tough times and good times—helping to rebuild UTMB after the devastating effects of Hurricane Ike and overseeing an unprecedented expansion of UTMB health services. What do you consider your greatest success so far at UTMB?

DS: There have been so many successes at UTMB since Hurricane Ike. Certainly, the miraculous way in which people rallied together to rebuild was amazing. While I am very proud of so many achievements UTMB has made since Ike, I think the day that stands out in my mind was the day that the University of Texas Board of Regents approved our plan to build the Jennie Sealy Hospital. At that moment, I knew we were back and our future was bright.

Impact: Now let’s go back a few years before you started working at UTMB. What was your first job ever?

DS: Other than the usual babysitting before the age of 16, which I did, I was a clerk in a grocery store. I worked at an IGA (Independent Grocers Association) in Springfield, Illinois.

Impact: As someone who once majored in literature and loves a good book, what books are you currently reading?

DS: I am currently reading “Killing Kennedy” by Bill O’Reilly. My son gave me that book for my birthday. I love to read good fiction and historical fiction. My favorite “mindless” reading author is Michael Connelly. My favorite historical fiction is by author Irving Stone.

Impact: What are three words that describe you?Sollenberger and her husband Kent enjoy spending quality time with their growing family. The couple has three children and four grandchildren.

DS: Determined, open-minded and impatient.

Impact: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

DS: Spending quality time with my family is very important to me.

Impact: What is something you’ve wanted to learn but haven’t had the chance to yet?

DS: Electronic scrapbooking. Dr. Rex McCallum’s wife is an expert on this—I need to take some lessons from her!

Impact: What else would you like the UTMB community to know about you? What are you excited about now?

DS: I thrive on change. Said another way, I get bored easily doing the same thing over and over. I need new ideas, new ways of doing things and new projects in my life to stay energized.

I am looking forward to this summer because while we just went to Madison, Wisconsin to visit our son, Blake, and his wife and two children, we are going to San Diego to visit our other son, Brad, and his wife and daughter. My husband, Kent, and I are also going with our daughter, her husband and our grandson on an Alaskan cruise—this was the trip we had to postpone two years ago when I fell and broke my leg. I am excited to see another beautiful part of the U.S.