Sally Hurt

Sally Hurt was born 44 years ago at Providence Memorial Hospital, part of the Sierra Providence Health Network in El Paso, and today she is CEO of the network’s newest hospital.

Sierra Providence East Medical Center, which is owned by public company Tenet Healthcare Corp., is now almost five years old. It has quickly become one of Tenet’s highest performing, if not its highest performing, hospitals. Tenet operates 49 hospitals in 10 states.

Hurt is a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso and a registered nurse. She earned a master’s degree in healthcare administration from Trinity University in San Antonio.

At the age of 27, she became the youngest corporate officer ever at Healthcare Corporation of America and its Columbia Medical Center West in El Paso.

Hurt was named chief nursing officer at Del Sol Medical Center in 1997. She moved to Oklahoma in 2005 where she served as CEO of Edmond Medical Center. In 2007, she returned to El Paso to lead Sierra Providence East Medical Center.

Hurt has an agreeable bedside manner and believes healing is as much an art as a science, her philosophy apparent in the building’s design. The hospital is decorated with art and desert gardens and local musicians are invited to play in its halls.

Circular patterns appear nearly everywhere – in the paintings, sculpture and even design of the building – representing the circle of life, Hurt says.

The mother of two boys who’s about to marry a man with three boys, Hurt still manages to find time to be active in the community, serving on the boards of the Border Arts Residence and YWCA.

Hurt recently spoke with El Paso Inc. about the hospital’s plans to expand, changes in Medicaid funding, reducing health care costs, and what happens when Dr. Payne works with Nurse Hurt.

Q: So you once worked with a Dr. Payne? It sounds like the start of a bad joke.

I am Nurse Hurt, and I did work with a Dr. Payne. When I worked at what is now Las Palmas Medical Center, Dr. Payne was a general surgeon. I remember we’d go into the holding room, and here are these patients getting ready to go into surgery, and he’d say, “I’m Dr. Payne and this is Nurse Hurt,” and these poor patients would look at us like, “Seriously?” He’d do it to create a little levity. He was quite the jokester.

Q: How many physicians have you recruited since the hospital opened? At some point, I talked to a recruiter here who said he had recruited 48 physicians over the last three or four years.

Back up to the building and opening of this hospital. I’m an Eastside girl. When I came back after working at Del Sol for nine years, it was shocking to see how much bigger the Eastside had grown. The interesting thing is, when I came back in 2008, there were only about 130 doctors in private practice – I mean those who live on the Eastside and have their primary office on the Eastside. 

So a population of roughly 400,000 people in East El Paso has been served by 130 Eastside physicians. The challenge at that point was convincing physicians to come here. Commuting from the Westside is 30 minutes each way, so we really had to create a physician community in the Far East around this hospital. 

We’ve recruited 54 physicians, and we have two more in the pipeline. The average cost to recruit a physician is about $500,000. From the Sierra Providence Health Network standpoint, the investment in the community is large.

Q: Yet the massive shortage of physicians in El Paso remains, which really highlights the scale of the problem.

Right. Between the three hospitals in the Sierra Providence Health Network, we’ve probably recruited 80 new physicians to El Paso over the past four years.

Q: How were you able to recruit so many here?

The physicians were really drawn to being able to build from the ground up. For some, there is no one to compete with them out here in Far East. It is really like being a big fish in a small pond. 

Recently we brought on two women doctors who are breast surgeons. 

I mean, El Paso doesn’t have female breast reconstruction surgeons. We recently did our first bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. The outcome was incredible. 

Q: How concerned should we be about El Paso’s aging doctor population? I hear many are retiring soon.

We see it nationally. The average age of physicians is increasing and the number of slots open in medical schools is decreasing. One of the extremely positive stories in El Paso has been the building of the medical school. Having access to local talent creates a lot more opportunity.

Q: Have you recruited graduates from Texas Tech’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso?

We have recruited quite a few and just added two brand new physicians that are products of Texas Tech. We’ve been able to keep a lot of the local graduates in El Paso.

Q: I’ve been told Sierra Providence Health Network is one of Tenet’s highest performing networks and this hospital is one of, if not the, highest performing hospital in the local network. Is that true?

Correct. We are very strong performers. When you walked in the front door, the plaque you saw there was the Circle of Excellence plaque. Tenet recognizes about five of their hospitals every year that are the outstanding performers, and it is not just financial performance. It encompasses everything, including service and quality.

Q: With all the growth in Far East El Paso, has the hospital reached capacity?

We hit capacity for the first time probably eight months ago. Pretty much every day we are at capacity.

Q: Hence your plans to expand?

When the hospital was planned in 2003, and the land purchased, the planners didn’t understand how quickly Far East El Paso would grow, even though the plans seemed aggressive at the time. I remember driving out here in 2003 and looking at the empty desert thinking this was either going to be brilliant or stupid. 

Right now, the hospital has 110 beds. By 2014, construction will be complete on the second tower, and we will have 182 beds. Why this building is so big is they sized all the ancillary departments like the lab and the pharmacy to accommodate up to 500 beds. 

Q: What are your thoughts on the number of woman in top health care positions? 

If you look at the big hospital systems in El Paso, I’m the only female CEO. But there are woman in top positions in health care here like Kristi Daugherty the CEO at Emergence Health Network. Whether female or not, I think I have a different perspective because I am a nurse. While I have business training, my background, and what I think of first, is how to provide care.

Q: There are also other health care executives here, woman and men, that are quite young. For example, the new CEO of Sierra Medical Center and Providence Memorial Hospital, Eric Evans, is 35.

It’s a great trend. With the younger set we have different perspectives. Eric and I have talked about this, and the relationship we have with the physicians is a partnership. It’s not the administrator versus the doctor. I don’t want to make this a blanket statement, because there are many very good hospital administrators; we just have a different perspective.

Q: Texas was granted a Medicaid waiver that could bring billions of Federal dollars to the state over five years and up to $500 million to El Paso. Some of the funds support indigent care and some support new programs designed to reduce health care costs. How could that funding impact El Paso and is Tenet involved?

Yes, we are one of the larger entities involved. The beauty of the program is it is outcome based. These projects are designed to target specific populations. For instance, there are specific dollars tied to increasing the number of primary care physicians. Each program has a set of metrics it has to meet to get the funding. 

Q: This is a bit of an experiment. Is it the right way to fund Medicaid in Texas?

Keep in mind this is only part of the funding. The waiver will give us more access as a region to certain dollars. What is so interesting in El Paso, because of our patient population and the dynamics of being a border community, charity care or indigent care is not solely provided by the county hospital. It could never happen, because it would be overrun. 

Q: How much indigent care does the Far East hospital provide?

We see quite a bit. We provided $465,057 in charity care and $49 million discounted care to the uninsured last year. Everybody in this community has to take care of the uninsured and the indigent, because there are just so many.

Q: These new Medicaid dollars are being distributed to health care organizations all over the city. What funding did Tenet get in El Paso?

We are focused on expanding specialty care and access to primary care.

Q: Which means hiring new doctors?

Yes. Specifically, specialists like rheumatologists.

Q: I understand there are only a few rheumatologists in the city and most are nearing retirement age.

We recruited Karen Smith who is a rheumatologist. Karen was one of my first recruits. She’s been here now three years. Her practice is full; it’s unbelievable busy.

Q: You mentioned expanding access to primary care.

There’s such a need to reduce hospital readmission rates. We want you to go home and stay healthy. For example, congestive heart failure, you see those patients come back a lot. If they don’t watch what they are eating and drinking or take their medication, they’ll rebound and be back in your facility. So we are looking at how we can use social workers, case managers and nurses to help those patients stay healthy after they are discharged.

Something else we see a lot are people using the emergency room as their primary care physician. How do we capture those patients and make sure they get to the right doctors? Emergency rooms are fabulous, and we need them, but the cost of receiving care in an ER is very high. That is just the reality of it.

This community is so drastically underserved. If patients don’t have access, then they are not receiving care and may not even know they have certain medical conditions. By the time they come to the hospital, they are in a lot of trouble. That drives up the cost of health care. I mean, how many people go see their physician for an annual check-up? 

We actually did a study looking at how many insured employees, I believe it was at one of our hospitals, had primary care physicians. About 40 percent of them didn’t have a primary care physician.

Q: What happens to a patient who comes to the ER but just has something like a bad cold?

Emergency rooms are a very unique animal because you have so many federal laws that prohibit a lot of things. Once a patient shows up at the emergency room, no matter what problem they have, there are certain federal standards you have to follow. 

Before you can ever say, “This isn’t the place you need to be,” a physician has to perform a medical screening. At that point, we can give you a list of urgent care clinics, community agencies and physicians and we can try to direct you to other access points that aren’t as costly.

Q: It’s been almost five years since the hospital opened, what are some of your goals for the next five years?

We want to keep growing, but it is more than just adding new towers and beds. We want to keep our connection to the community. Whether it’s partnering with the school districts or neighborhood associations, we are part of Far East El Paso and we want to keep that down home kind of feeling.

Q: As a board member of the Border Arts Residency, are you an artist as well?

I have zero artistic ability – I draw stick figures – but I’ll tell you, the arts are very important to me. There is an art to health care. In nursing school, we were taught it is a healing art. We were taught therapeutic touch. The art you see on the wall or music can provide another type of healing.

We do a lot with the Border Arts Residency and El Paso Pro-Musica. Cellist Zuill Bailey has played here. To be able to walk and just look at beautiful things can take your mind off the worry and stress of what is happening. All the research points to a connection; art can lower blood pressure and stress. 

What you will notice in the hospital are circular patterns, even in the artwork. It is very much the circle of life; it is from birth to death.

Q: Zuill Bailey performs here?

We have a great partnership with the Socorro Independent School District. One year, Zuill performed for at risk and fine art kids here. He played and talked to the kids; it was the coolest thing. We’ve got some areas in the hospital that have great acoustics.

Q: Why is it important for the hospital to reach out to the community?

Walking into a hospital, it can be so institutional, and it is one of the most frightening places in the world to be. When the president of the neighborhood association is comfortable telling me, “Sally, we really need new parks” it creates an important connection. I say, “Great, let’s figure out how we can set up walking paths here.” Community focus groups and support groups meet at the hospital.

Q: What’s next for you?

I love what I do. I love this hospital. It has been an honor to build what I have, and I want to see it grow. I have five kids. Having grandparents here and my sister, this is home. Five years out, I still see myself sitting here.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.