J. Eric Evans

J. Eric Evans has taken over as top executive of El Paso’s largest hospital network during a turbulent time for health care in the United States and a time of great change for health care in El Paso.

Evans was named market chief executive officer Sept. 3, overseeing the 508-bed Providence Memorial Hospital and the 351-bed Sierra Medical Center in El Paso.

It’s a big job. The hospitals are owned by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare (NYSE: THC), the second-largest hospital chain in the nation. They are also part of the Sierra Providence Health Network in El Paso, which is one of Tenet’s largest hospital networks.

The network has a 46-percent share of the El Paso hospital market. It employs 2,756 people in the area and paid $195 million in salaries, wages and benefits last year, company figures show. It also paid more than $12 million in local taxes.

Evans replaces John Harris who resigned as CEO of Sierra Providence Health Network in June, after having held that position for more than six years.

Evans will work closely with Sally Hurt, CEO of the network’s newest hospital, Sierra Providence East Medical Center, which is about to get a $67-million expansion.

Most recently, Evans worked as CEO of Lake Pointe Health Network in Rowlett, Texas – a much smaller network anchored by a 112-bed hospital. The network grew by double digits while he was there. Evans oversaw the launch of the county’s first interventional cardiology and open-heart program and the development of four new outpatient centers.

“The key to the success there, as it is everywhere, is if you keep the patient in the middle of everything, if every decision is based on what’s best for the patient, everything else takes care of itself,” he says.

Evans, 35, grew up in a small rural farming community in Northern Indiana, bailing hay and working in corn fields. The closest town had a population of 1,100 people, he says.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from Purdue University, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Evans began his career in manufacturing, working in the auto industry for Saturn.

“I didn’t get the personal satisfaction out of the work I wanted to. I loved the technical challenge of it, but I didn’t see the difference I was making in a way that I thought I could in health care,” he says.

So Evans joined Tenet and took part in the company’s Leadership Development Program.

Evans and his wife Steffanie have two sons – a 2 year old and a 1 month old. They hope to move permanently to El Paso in October.

Evans sat down with El Paso Inc. on his first day on the job and talked about recruiting physicians, cutting health-care costs and new competition.

Q: Why did you take the position here? It sounds like you were very successful in your previous position.

Lots of reasons. No. 1 is just the opportunity. This is one of the premier systems if not the premier system within Tenet Healthcare and has a history of providing exceptional care in the community. I am excited about raising my two boys here. It’s a great family community. I have just been very impressed by the people I’ve met, the city’s vibrancy and its growth.

Q: Were you concerned about the violence across the border or quality of life here? It’s been a challenge recruiting health care professionals to El Paso for some of those reasons.

I’ve lived in a lot of places and certainly look forward to being here for a long time. I really didn’t have those concerns, I’ll be honest. My family is excited to come. I’ve spent some time in the border region, which I have always found to be great. I really enjoy the multiculturalism.

You say it’s hard to recruit here. We need to work on that; we have to figure out a way to show off El Paso. One of the things I will be very focused on is physician recruitment. El Paso is a great place, and I actually think recruitment is only going to get easier. There are a lot of great things going on here.

Q: It does seem like the trajectory is upward like you say, but, on the other hand, I’ve talked to physicians who say the only reason they are in El Paso is because they have family here or the military made them come here. They say they have to work harder, are reimbursed less and have a lower quality of life than their colleagues in other U.S. cities.

In fairness, physicians face many challenges right now nationwide. If you asked a group of doctors almost anywhere in the country, they’d say they are struggling with reimbursements. That is a sentiment that is definitely not unique to El Paso.

One of the things I am excited about coming here is working with the community and our medical staff to ensure that we are part of the solution. These are not questions that don’t have answers. We have higher expectations than ever with lower reimbursement, so we have to continue to get more efficient. Depending on how health care reform shakes out, it may have a dramatic impact, especially in a market like El Paso.

Regardless of what happens, reform is happening with or without the government plan. What happens with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, because things have to change.

The status quo in this country is untenable. Health care is too expensive. We’ve got to become more integrated. We’ve got to become more efficient. If there were a silver bullet answer, it obviously would have been done by now.

As far as this particular community goes, our biggest concern is access for our patients. We want to make sure that patients have access long term, which will require some sort of reimbursement for those folks.

Obviously that’s a challenge right now. The governor has his own opinions on whether or not to support reform, and we’ll just have to see how that shakes out. For us though, our job is to provide great health care for whoever walks in the door.

Q: What are some ways the health network here can keep costs down?

We really focus on a lot of operational improvements internally. Beyond that, it’s continuing to work on our health care metrics. We’ve done a good job of driving down infection rates and making sure we read the evidence-based medicine criteria.

This industry is very complex. I mean, what other industry is there where the first bill you get says, “This is not a bill.” I sit there and think about all the extra layers and over time we’re going to have to get more efficient.

I come from an industrial engineering background. It’s not the way clinical folks naturally think. It’s asking how do we streamline processes.

Q: What makes this market so good for Tenet? I understand the hospitals here are some of Tenet’s highest performing.

There are a couple things. Texas is a great environment for health care. You see a lot of physicians coming to Texas for lots of reasons. It’s an attractive place to do business unlike some other states.

There are also some unique things about this local market. You have enough scale and size that you can do things more efficiently. There have also been a lot of folks before me who have done a really nice job of building the system.

We’ve got to be more proactive in the community. One thing that is happening with all health care providers is they are having to be more focused on population health.

Q: Population health?

It’s looking at what issues are driving health care costs in a market and how you might get ahead of those.

So if you look at the population in El Paso, it’s asking what are the biggest chronic diseases we are facing, what are the things that are driving the most costs in health care and how do we a better job with wellness and prevention.

Q: How will you work with physicians to improve the relationship of the health network and physicians?

The first thing is always to listen. I mean, the medical staff, these folks are trained; they are natural patient advocates, and understanding their concerns is really important.

Being new to the market, there is a lot for me to learn. You know, it’s tricky.

There are lots of different incentives that don’t always align but if you keep the care of the patient in center, it naturally aligns hospitals, patients and physicians.

Q: When you say the incentives don’t always align, what do you mean?

Hospitals, physicians and post- acute care providers are paid independently and not always on the same metrics.

Right now we are a very siloed system that requires integration to work. You have to take into account how each group works together in a very specific way otherwise you are not truly listening to their needs.

Q: I understand you participated in an executive exchange program in India with Apollo Hospitals, a large hospital group in Asia. Anything in particular strike you about the health care system in India?

One thing about their system that stands out as particularly interesting is that they don’t have an insurance set up like we do; it is a cash-based business.

So unlike here where our billing and pricing is so complex, over there it is much like a restaurant.

You walk in and there is just, literally, prices for everything.

Q: A new non-profit children’s hospital has opened in El Paso and the county hospital has had a makeover. What is the impact on the network? How will you respond?

We believe that healthy competition that drives improved access for our region’s children will ultimately be a win for all involved.

Importantly, it has no impact on our broader mission of providing outstanding care to every child that passes through our doors or our commitment to Providence Children’s Hospital.

We remain focused on the same outreach and community engagement initiatives that have driven our success to date.

Q: What are your most immediate priorities?

Being new to the market, one of the biggest things I am going to be doing my first few weeks here is listening, getting information on what’s worked, what hasn’t and what opportunities are out there.

I want to make sure I understand where we are at and what concerns might be out there from the physicians and what concerns might be out there from the staff. I’m a big, big believer in employee engagement.

One of the things I am really proud of at my last hospital is we had some of the highest scores in the company in employee engagement. We also have to continue to look at those areas of growth opportunities that we have and prioritize those.

This hospital has been a leader in the community for a long time now; we just have to push ourselves to make sure that we are a leader nationally.

There are tremendous growth opportunities in this market. We’ve got the pediatric ER we started here, which we’re proud of. We’ve got the da Vinci robotic program and the MAKO robotic program – a lot of technology-related things.

The Eastside, from a population standpoint, continues to be a huge growth area for the network. Sally has done a great job out there. We are also working on building a neuroscience program at Sierra.

Q: What do you and your family like to do outside of work?

So for me, I like to read and we love to travel. We’ve spent some time in Africa, Australia and the Middle East. We like to be outdoors and know this is a great outdoor city. Beyond that, spending time with family. Obviously with a 2 year old and a 1 month old, that takes a lot of our free time.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.