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UPMC’s Steve Johnson talks career, next adventure

Growing up in a family of pastors, Steve Johnson saw entering the field of health care as his calling — a way that he could help others.

“Health care is a helping profession and an extension of a helping profession. One of the joys and blessings I receive from that is that I get to do something I love to do,” Johnson said.

“It’s very demanding. It’s intellectually stimulating, working with great people — our medical staff, our nursing staff, our administration team, an extraordinary community, a wonderful part of the country — and being able to use my business skills to do good things for the community,” he said.

Johnson, who has completed 38 years with Susquehanna Health and its successor, UPMC Susquehanna, has decided to retire as CEO there and move into the position of co-CEO of UPMC International’s new facility in Chengdu, China.

Although it may not be what everyone thinks of as retirement, Johnson sees it as “proceeding to his next adventure.”

Throughout his career in health care, which began when he was offered a job at the Lycoming County nursing home, Johnson has seen a lot of changes in the delivery of health care.

Although it’s difficult to pick just a few, Johnson noted one that he considers among the most impactful for this area, the decision to keep Divine Providence Hospital and the Williamsport Hospital within the city of Williamsport.

“At one point we were considering relocating them outside of Williamsport in the east part of Lycoming County,” he said. “So, that certainly is one decision to have remained here and to invest in the properties and in the people in this immediate community.”

Retooling the regional emergency room into a trauma system rates second on his list of things that have impacted health care in the area.

“That has had an extraordinary impact. There are people alive today because of our commitment to upgrade the overall performance of our emergency rooms to a trauma system that wouldn’t have been alive in years prior,” he said.

The decision by the local hospital system to join with the UPMC organization is something that Johnson feels is the third significant change and one that he sees as impacting the community for the “foreseeable future.”

With change can come challenges and Johnson admitted that, in the health care environment, there are “constant challenges.”

One of the greatest challenges came as the industry moved from inpatient focused service to a more outpatient focused care.

“That sounds like it might be a relatively easy transition, but these buildings were all built for inpatient services and transitioning them to outpatient services is a very, very expensive proposition,” Johnson said.

“In some cases that means that we have buildings, maybe entire hospitals, that we don’t need anymore and appropriately dealing with those is very, very challenging,” he added.

Technology is constantly changing, especially in the medical field. Technology obsolescence is how Johnson described it.

“So, technology in health care has a lifespan of approximately seven and a half or eight years. And, that’s not when the equipment wears out. We’re talking about million dollar pieces of equipment — they don’t wear out in seven or eight years. They become antiquated and obsolete for technical reasons,” he explained.

“Constantly maintaining state of the art equipment is a very big challenge for us right now today,” he said.

Although the changes revolving around the rules and regulations of Medicare and Medicaid are challenging, right now, Johnson shared that perhaps the biggest challenge facing health care is the lack of staff in key areas.

“The baby boomers are retiring. This new generation of nurses and doctors has many, many opportunities and in some cases are choosing careers outside of health care, even though they’ll be using their technical skills and those options weren’t available in the past,” he said.

“We compete with all of that to make sure that we have enough doctors and nurses for services right here in the hospital,” he said.

Johnson added that he feels staffing will be a huge challenge for the next five to ten years.

As he transitions into the next phase in his career, Johnson, who has been a presence in the community, sitting on boards of various organizations, shared why it’s important to give back.

“You know that we all stand on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before us and that’s true of individuals. It’s true of communities,” he said.

“In order to ensure that our future generations have the benefit of a beautiful environment to live in, like we have here, and a solid, successful community to support our lifestyles, we have to invest in it,” he said.

But, it takes time and energy from all of us,” he added.

When Johnson was offered the chance to be co-CEO of a 500-bed hospital in Chengdu, he said he jumped at it.

“My parents, at the end of their career, were getting ready to retire. They always thought about doing missionary work and had done some short-term trips to South America and Africa,” he said.

“My brother was a missionary in Venezuela for two or three years, so I always had it in the back of my mind that, somewhere along the line before I retired, I might like to do some foreign service,” Johnson said.

“So, when this opportunity presented itself — UPMC was looking for seasoned hospital leaders to help get this hospital operational next spring — it seemed like an ideal opportunity to touch on a number of those bases all at once, so I jumped at it,” he said.

Although this is UPMC’s first venture in China, it is not the hospital system’s first venture internationally, with campuses located in Ireland, Italy and Kazakhstan.

Johnson admitted he is excited about this next chapter in his life.

“Now, at first I wasn’t 100% sure. I thought, gosh, did I bite off more than I could chew. But, I was on the phone today working out some language courses and I’ve been having lunch with people in the area who are from China,” he said.

Johnson has also re-connected with an old acquaintance from another health care system who has spent time in China.

“As often is the case with these kinds of things, you find out there are more people there with similar experiences or with experiences that may translate into being beneficial,” he said.

Johnson will be spending time in China, although he has no plans to move there.

When asked if he ever plans to retire, Johnson replied, “I guess everyone retires at some point. So, yes, eventually, but I’m not sure exactly when that will be and what other ventures might come first.”

This story was taken in part from a video interview by News Editor Karen Vibert-Kennedy, which can be viewed on the Sun-Gazette’s YouTube channel.

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