Drills helped Boston Medical Center rise to occasion

Kate Walsh, chief executive, Boston Medical Center
Kate Walsh, chief executive, Boston Medical CenterJosh Reynolds for The Globe

Kate Walsh took over as president and chief executive of Boston Medical Center, the state’s largest safety net hospital, in March 2010. Walsh, 57, a Brookline native, is a former chief operating officer for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. During the past three years, she has restored Boston Medical Center to profitability and worked to lower costs and improve the quality of care. Walsh spoke with Globe health care-business reporter Robert Weisman at the hospital.

Your staff treated nearly two dozen people wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings. What’s that experience been like for you?


Well, obviously it’s been a great privilege to be part of the care of gravely injured people who got to the hospital within minutes of the event. It speaks to the benefits of practice. We drill for mass casualty events as an institution. We drill as a city with first responders. Everything we were supposed to do worked. But nothing you can practice could prepare you for Marathon Monday and what it was like in this hospital. A combination of being ready and having practice, but also expert clinical and trauma care delivered with compassion and teamwork, really saved lives. I know it saved lives here, and I’m sure it saved lives at other hospitals around the city.

Did the tragedy and the trauma care bring you together as a hospital community?

Oh, absolutely. Everybody I talked to, and I talked to a lot of people both the day of and day after, said the teamwork was spectacular. A lot of our staff saw things they had never seen, and they really rose to the occasion and have been supporting each other since. We learned a few things. We never actually had to establish a family and loved ones kind of space. And we had literally hundreds of people coming into our hospital looking for loved ones. And we created what was really a family reunification center, which was one of the best things we did at this hospital.


Is BMC planning a debriefing on what it learned from the experience?

So the bombings were on ­Monday. Tuesday morning at 9 we were all in the command center and we debriefed the incident and our response. And they’ll be a citywide debrief, which has been happening, and we will also debrief again. We can always do better, and there are parts of our response that will improve. But in general, we were very proud of how we performed.

How will the work you’re doing be affected by federal budget cuts? BMC is more dependent on government funding than most other hospitals.

We did post a modest ­(financial) gain in 2012. And in each of the six months so far in this fiscal year, we’ve managed to eke out a small surplus. We do that through very rigorous cost control, making sure that if someone’s in our hospital bed they need to be there. But the looming federal cuts will ­disproportionately affect us, ­because we care for a uniquely vulnerable population. So while the cuts will affect every ­institution in the city, they will affect us more. We’re looking at $40 million in cuts, if ­everything goes as planned, on the federal side in fiscal 2014. So we are not looking forward to the fiscal 2014 budget ­process around here.


Some of your public funding last year was contingent on making changes in how health care is delivered. How is that playing out?

Much of what we’re doing through our partnership with the state and the federal ­government is getting ready to transform health care. It’s a lot of building blocks along the way — trying to reduce ­readmission rates, making sure ­patients have their diabetes ­under control so we can care­ for them in an ambulatory ­setting. We’re working hard on teamwork, we’re making sure that patients have access to ­primary care through an ­improved call center. All of the things we’re doing support our ultimate goal of being ­responsible for the health of the ­patients we serve.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.