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Chris Gessner '89: The best healthcare possible

  • Alumni feature
    Alumni feature  Christopher Gessner ('89) is able to ensure both world-class care and with a sustainable business model.  
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Ask any parent, and they will tell you that the most stressful time to be a mother or a father is when a child is ill or sick, and there is nothing that they can do for their own. To hand their child over to a stranger for expert treatment is something that can sometimes be excruciating. But in the hands of qualified experts and specialists, there is no better place than in one of the many children's hospitals across the country.
Managing this process is another matter. One must have the wisdom to understand the intricacies of the medical arts, while at the same time, walk the tightrope between a nonprofit and fundraising research institution. In the case of the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Christopher Gessner '89 is that person, is able to ensure both world class care and with a sustainable business model.
Growing up the son of a pediatrician, Gessner was exposed to the medical field at a very young age. His brother even became a physician, something that he considered as well. But somewhere along the line, he decided to take a different route.
"I spent some time at a community hospital between some of my College years, working and doing some odd jobs," says Gessner. "I got to know the administrators and I really appreciated the complexity of the management challenge. Health care in the United States is a social institution, but is also a business -- a real mix between both. I like the blend of a service organization, but with the discipline of running a business."
Before Gessner ascended to the top position at Children's Hospital, he served a dual role as the chief operating officer and vice president of ambulatory services and president of the Community Care Pediatrics practices. These jobs prepared him well to take that next step up the management ladder, but a genuine appreciation for the people who work in the medical industry is something that makes everything easier for him as a manager.
"I just love working with physicians and clinicians -- I think that if you want to run a hospital, you have to enjoy physicians," says Gessner. "They are challenging and independent-minded -- getting them to understand a corporate view of the hospital is a real challenge. I like working shoulder to shoulder with physicians, doctors and other specialists who have expertise that is very different than mine, but I can add a lot of good questions and get a difference in opinions to help drive our direction."
That direction, in May, will be on an entirely new $600 million campus for the Children's Hospital, which will represent the bleeding edge of technology, including a paperless patient records system -- a first for a children's hospital. And as it breaks with the longtime location of the hospital, much of the equipment and research will be funded by private means.
Gessner sees a parallel with what the College is facing and what he will have to do in leading his institution into the near future. He's quick to bring up the quote from Taylor Reveley's -- the daydream wish for a $2 billion unrestricted endowment for William and Mary, which would help solve so many of the budget problems faced by Gessner's alma mater.
"He took the words right out of my mouth," laughs Gessner. "For pediatric hospitals, 40 percent of our services come from the Medcaid population, which is [tied] to the state budget. In order for us to continue to compete and to invest in our people and our programs and our equipment, we really need to fundraise. We have an advantage because our cause is so noble -- but it's challenging because of the number of organizations out there who are also competing for the same dollars."
Gessner has his work cut out for him, as he points out that his peer institutions across the country have much larger endowments to dip into when times are lean. These funds are often used for services that will not be reimbursed or paid for in other ways, such as pure research and equipment. And because the hospital is a teaching institution as well, that soaks up extra funds.
Because of all of these factors, and because of the fact that Children's Hospital is dedicated to helping young people, a special type of clinician is required to nurture the special needs of their little patients and their nervous parents.
"We are a very sub-specialized institution," says Gessner. "All of our physicians have very focused training in pediatrics. But what really makes them special is that they are very collaborative and open minded. We try to put ourselves in the parents' shoes, and we try to view it from their perspective as it is a very stressful time in their lives."
Gessner makes a point with all the members of his team that this sort of collaboration is essential to giving the patient a superior experience. He also believes that working together is the true key to success in any endeavor, beyond the health care industry.
"One of the things that I think hold organizations back, and therefore people back, is turf," says Gessner. "It is the one thing that drives me crazy. I am very fortunate because in my career, I've always been in a management role. I didn't come up through the ranks, so I don't have any ties to the turf. I only see the whole and I only see the work process as it flows through the organization. Avoiding a turf mentality is absolutely imperative these days to be successful."
Though he professes that turf is a bad thing, as a student, Gessner was always involved with the turf wars on Saturday afternoons at Zable Stadium. Gessner played cornerback for the Tribe and has been involved with sports ever since, now mostly as a youth coach with his two sons and his daughter. But living in Pittsburgh makes it almost a given that he will root for the black and gold, and he admits that he and his family are "huge" Steeler fans.
Interestingly enough, Gessner could have spoiled the Super Bowl XLIII celebration that Pittsburgh just enjoyed. In a chance meeting a few years after he graduated from the College, Gessner and his wife, Jane, bumped into Mike Tomlin '95, who was wrestling with the idea of law school.
"My wife swears that I told him to go to law school," laughs Gessner. "I don't believe her. It's funny because she tells everyone this story now -- and I keep saying that I don't think that I was that specific on telling him to go to law school."
For everyone's sake, Tomlin didn't take Gessner's advice, and now the rest is Super Bowl history. But they may have a meeting in the near future. The two former Tribe football players at the top of their professions in Pittsburgh could join forces.
"I'm trying to actually have lunch with him after the season, because the Steelers are very good to Children's Hospital," says Gessner. "A lot of their players come here a lot and see our kids and patients. I'm trying to touch base with him and see if we can become his favorite charity in Pittsburgh."