As a volunteer candy striper at the age of 14, Lorraine Lutton was already questioning hospital policies.
In her teen years, Lutton, the youngest of five children, joined her mother as a volunteer at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, W.Va.
“That’s when I realized I really want to get into health care,” she said. “It’s such a visible act of caring and service to others, but I realized that I was probably not as talented one-on-one with the patient as perhaps as I was in leadership.”
During her time as a candy striper, she walked the hospital’s halls wearing khakis or slacks, a button-down shirt and a pink smock, not the traditional pink-and-white striped dress. Candy stripers at St. Mary’s were “transporters and gofers and runners,” she said.
“I started off as a transport volunteer as a candy striper, going and getting patients and bringing them to the physical therapy department,” Lutton said. “Although I enjoyed that and I liked to talk to people, I always wanted to say, ‘Well why are we bringing people down to the department? Why aren’t we sending the therapists up there?’ So already, even at the age of 14, I was thinking and questioning, ‘How can we do it better?’ ”
Weeks into the job, Lutton already has high praise for the Roper St. Francis health care system, which includes three hospitals, 657 beds, more than 90 facilities and doctors’ offices, and 5,500 employees.
“It’s really, very impressive. The culture is palpable,” she said. “The commitment to the community is obvious.”
She said she will focus on finding ways to make primary care physicians and nurse practitioners more accessible to patients in the rapidly growing Lowcountry.
Increasing access could involve building more office space; but smaller, easier steps — such as changing processes to improve the availability of appointments — will likely be taken first, she said.
“It could be as simple as if you call your doctor and there’s no availability today, we offer you — and you may not choose to take it — but we offer you an appointment with another doctor,” she said. “It might be as simple as a warm handoff to a physician who can see you today, or it might become more virtual telemedicine consults. We have to think about what the patient wants and try to strategize how we can better meet that need.”
Rearranging providers to be closer to patients could be an option, along with adding new providers and services.
“I’m not ready to commit to a whole lot of new construction, although I suspect that will be in our capital plans for the next five years,” she said.
Lutton is the first female leader of the 150-year-old, nonprofit hospital system.
“I would not have hoped to be the first in today’s age, but given that I am, I feel it’s humbling, and I want to do the best I can to serve the community but to also represent the women leaders,” Lutton said.
She said she was impressed with the system’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in leadership. In early September, Mary “Toni” Flowers became Roper St. Francis’ first chief diversity officer.
“I have a different gender; our leadership team now has several African-
American members. I think we’re trying to get the perspectives across the community that represent the community,” Lutton said. “I think that can only make us stronger in making more fully vetted choices as we are inclusive of the breadth of diversity that we represent.”
Lutton replaced David Dunlap, who plans to retire after 13 years of leading Roper St. Francis. The two met weekly during the first weeks of the transition.
Lutton said it’s too early to evaluate any changes in the leadership team that Dunlap built.
“I have not found any weak spots,” she said. “I don’t want to commit to a restructuring or not restructuring or any kind of personnel change at this point; I think they’re a great team, very dynamic, with a lot of talent.”
Believing that shared decision-making and shared ownership are requirements for success, Lutton said she will list her cellphone number on her business cards and in the company directory so that she can be reached directly.
“I’m very straightforward,” she said. “I believe we should always be thinking about what’s best for the patient, and fortunately, I’m blessed to be joining a team that has a long history of that, but I have a very inclusive leadership style.”
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.