Kathleen Rhine’s first job in health care was at an eye clinic in Kenya. She saw others who could not: Afflicted by eye disease, blindness and other ailments, they struggled to live normally.
Rhine, then fresh out of Penn State’s health planning and administration program, helped manage the clinic by ensuring supplies were ready, staff members were paid and new workers got recruited. It was taxing work. But it mattered to Rhine.
It still does.
“For me, even though I was not clinically trained, I could see that I could play a really key role in supporting the people who take care of patients,” she said, “and then making the operations run more smoothly to make that happen.”
About four decades later, Rhine’s journey has come full circle. She’s returned to State College as the new president and CEO of Mount Nittany Health, the largest health system in the Centre Region. She most recently served as the regional president and CEO with Presence Health in Chicago.
Rhine took the reins on Jan. 30. She succeeded Steve Brown, who held the positions since 2010.
“From the beginning, I loved being able to see how really skilled doctors and nurses and staff made a meaningful difference in the lives of patients and their families,” she said. “Ever since then it helped make an everyday difference because the people we care for are unique, and they put their trust in us in the most critical times of their lives, not just for the clinical care, but for compassion and understanding as well.”
Q: As a Penn State graduate, what does it mean to you to return to State College in this role?
A: We call it “Happy Valley.” The four years I spent here were indeed very, very happy. Three of my four siblings are also Penn State grads, so I guess you could say it runs in the family. And while I was here, I met my husband, made lifelong friends and got my health planning and administration degree, which opened the doors for the work that I’ve come to love. So to be able to return to this community and work at Mount Nittany Health is just icing on the cake for me.
Q: With the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act, what is the health system’s contingency plan?
A: I don’t have a crystal ball, but whatever happens our mission at Mount Nittany Health is making people healthier. And that always has and will guide what we do. ... So we’re well-positioned to manage in uncertain times. That being said, we’re not going to wait for what’s going to happen. When we think about making people healthier, ideally that starts before they come into the hospital. We’ve been and will continue to take our services into the community so we can keep care close to where people live, and expand the services we offer.
Another key portion for us is the community partnerships that we’ve invested in, such as The Centre County HOPE Initiative, Centre Moves, Centred Outdoors and its Prescription Parks Program and Centre County Zero Suicide Steering Committee.
Q: The U.S. has some of the highest health care costs in the developed world. What is the system doing to control health care costs for patients? What can be done?
A: It’s something that we continue to work on. It means investing in a system that provides something better than just episodic care — or care that happens in the moment and then isn’t coordinated — so people can sustain the improvements that they make in their health. Then it also involves streamlining the efficiency of our operations. We’ll do that by involving the people who do the work in health care in improving the work. Our people have so many ideas on how we can improve things, how we can more be more timely — so we’ll be looking to engage our staff in how to innovate as we do that.
Then the other thing I’ve seen in my career is involving patients in their own care. They can be so helpful in advising us on opportunities to make services better, how to design our facilities and how to make our operation more patient-centered.
Q: How does your vision differ from your predecessors? How does it compare?
A: I think everything we do has and will again come back to that mission statement. For me, it will be continuing to build on that legacy. One of the things that we’ve initiated here is what I call a “daily huddle,” which is a daily meeting at 8:45 a.m., a stand-up meeting of about 40 of our clinical leaders who come together for 15 minutes and we review that day’s operations. Our goal is to identify in real time what patients will need and to reprioritize if something comes up.
And then innovation. We’re looking at launching an innovation program that allows us to collect the good ideas that people have, test and vet them, select some to invest in and see how can use those ideas to improve.