ST. ALBANS — At the end of November, Dr. Dean French started as the new CEO of Northwestern Medical Center.
French is many things — a board-certified physician, an army veteran, an avid outdoorsman and a motorcycle repairman — but above all, he’s an experienced hospital administrator with a passion for supporting community-based, not-for-profit healthcare.
“NMC has the potential to be the highest quality, safest facility in the state of Vermont,” he said. “Becoming that is where our focus is as an organization right now.”
According to NMC, French was selected from a pool of 75 applicants. He comes to NMC after spending five years as the CEO of Community Medical Center in Missoula, Montana.
Prior to becoming a physician, French served in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
“I was an underperformer in high school, and I had lots of interests and dreams and goals, but none of them were very focused, so joining the military was a very smart decision,” he said.
It was while serving overseas, after a co-worker fell acutely ill and didn’t receive medical attention in time, that French realized he wanted to become a doctor.
“I wanted to go to medical school, because I felt like I wasn’t able to exert the influence I wanted to at that moment,” he said. “I felt like I needed to go — that it was my calling. I told my unit commander that’s what I wanted to do, and he was a farsighted person who allowed me in my last seven months of my enlistment to go full time to college.”
The Messenger recently spoke with French about his first few weeks as CEO, his response to COVID-19 and his vision for the hospital going forward.
Q: What drew you to NMC and to St. Albans?
A: I was actively looking to find an independent, community hospital that has a solid legacy and that was looking for a new leader.
Independent hospitals are becoming less and less common in the U.S. because there’s been a lot of consolidation of healthcare services and acquisition. And I was previously working in the for-profit hospital sector and while I enjoyed my career, I really was looking to find a way to get back into the not-for-profit healthcare world and to really help lead an organization that was independent.
And so, I had my ear to the ground, and I was familiar with St. Albans. I grew up in the mid-Hudson River Valley and have family in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
My cousin, when she graduated UVM, was a teacher here in St. Albans right out of the chute. I had a familiarity with the area, and so when this opportunity popped up it immediately got my attention.
Q: What have you been doing to acquaint yourself with NMC and its community?
A: NMC did an absolutely wonderful job, way back in the late spring and early summer, of surveying all the employees and physicians and the board members and putting together a document that expressed what they were looking for in a leader.
That document really gave me a pretty clear roadmap and view of the organization and the community, and where the organization wanted to go.
When the decision was made to hire me, I was able to virtually meet with leadership and get an update on what was going on in St. Albans. I met weekly for two months prior to actually arriving, to make sure I was kept abreast of what was going on through COVID and other challenges.
Now that I’m here, it’s been all about walking around, meeting people and getting into the tempo and rhythms of the organization. I’m identifying where my leadership can help this organization move forward in a better and stronger place so we can continue to provide high quality care but also improve that care.
Q: Can you explain a typical day for you right now? Who do you talk to? When do you start and end?
A: Most of my days begin with what we call our daily operational brief, which is where we look at what happened in the previous 24 hours, what is confronting us for the next 24 hours and make sure that our teams are all able to have the resources they need to solve problems.
Because we’re in a dynamic situation right now, things pop up that require immediate attention, so beyond the operational brief, my days aren’t necessarily super predictable.
I do have a twice a week meeting with all the other CEOs of the other hospitals in Vermont and the Vermont Department of Health leadership. That’s where we coordinate our response to COVID and make vaccine plans.
My day can start as early as 6 a.m. and can end as late as 9 p.m. It is a seven-day-a-week job.
Q: Right now of course, most of your time is spent coordinating the hospital’s response to COVID-19, but what other goals or visions do you have for NMC?
A: Exactly, COVID is where my focus has been with this team, and thankfully, what I found is a team that already had some really good, sophisticated thoughts and structure in place for the COVID response.
Beyond that, we’re embarking on what we call a High Reliability Journey here, which is the concept that how we do our work and how our behaviors are within the facility informs and improves our care and makes it safer for our patients.
We are bringing in quality improvement principles from the industry that have been adopted for healthcare and have created very high-performing healthcare organizations across the country like the Cleveland Clinic, Virginia Mason and Seattle.
This is a focus for us, and it’s an area of my background that I’m comfortable with. The High Reliability Journey was started by the NMC board over a year ago with our medical staff and our leadership here, and so part of my early onboarding here has been engaging with that and accelerating it.
Q: As CEO, what kind of connection do you see yourself having with the greater St. Albans and Franklin County community?
A: Where I think the staff is going to see me focused, probably more than any other place, is in thinking what are the needs in our community. I don’t think NMC should be the solution for all the things this community needs, whether it’s food insecurity or housing issues or substance abuse recovery, but we have a role to play.
And we have an obligation to understand how that’s working in our community, and what and how we as a healthcare platform work with other partners in the community to make sure that all the needs are being met.
Part of that for me is going to be getting out and spending as much time with different stakeholders in our community as I can — whether that’s doctors, NOTCH, a home health agency, political leaders or mental health specialists.
My focus right now is hearing and listening, and asking questions, as I try to think about what an NMC’s role is in northwest Vermont.