SIOUX CITY — Starting a new job in a new community is usually an ordeal. Starting a job as the head of an organization is a whole other thing.
Tom Clark is getting himself acclimated. This isn’t his first rodeo.
Clark, 62, was tapped this winter to become the president of MercyOne Western Iowa, the division of the Iowa-based MercyOne health system that includes MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center and MercyOne’s various clinics in the area.
His first day on the job was Feb. 27.
Formerly an executive with Avera Health in Sioux Falls and a high-ranking healthcare administrator who’s worked in the industry more than 40 years, Clark replaces Beth Hughes, who took a position with a healthcare system in Buffalo, New York, last year.
The following is a Q-and-A with Tom Clark. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.
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Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where you’re from originally, your educational background, the course of your career?
A: Both my wife (Betty) and I are native Hoosiers, born and raised in Indiana. Spent a lot of my career in Indiana. And actually my undergraduate work was in communications, public relations and marketing. And then I got a Master’s in communications, and then ultimately went back and got my MBA and started my career in healthcare, at a faith-based facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana, working in their marketing department. And then, over time, just added responsibilities to that, did physician recruiting, and then added all the support services like security, dietary, plant operations, those types of things. Which ultimately led to my first CEO role (in the fall of 1998 at Wells Community Hospital in Bluffton, Indiana).
I was CEO at two hospitals in Indiana, and then in 2011 we came to South Dakota. I joined Avera Health out in Mitchell, South Dakota as their market president. I was in that role for nine years. And then I took a job, got a promotion actually, to the corporate office in Sioux Falls, back in 2020. I became the chief strategy and growth officer for Avera Health, and I did that for two and a half years, before coming here to serve as the Western Iowa president for MercyOne.
Your educational background — communications and public relations, plus the MBA — could have allowed you to work in a number of fields. Why did you decide to work in healthcare?
I always joke that I didn’t find healthcare, that healthcare found me. It was just by happenstance that my first job out of college was at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And that’s where I fell in love with healthcare. And I often joke that, had my first job out of college been with the airlines, I might be an airline executive today. But I like to say, I am blessed that healthcare found me. I’ve never looked back.
Not everybody who goes into the field of healthcare administration becomes a president or a CEO. How did you get into these top jobs? I’d imagine by the time you landed your first CEO role about 25 years ago, you’d shown some talent as an administrator.
I think I had a natural curiosity for how decisions were made, and why we were doing what we were doing. I was always asking questions and trying to understand, what’s the big picture here? And how does this help us in getting to where we’re wanting to go? So I was always inquisitive, and asked a lot of questions.
And I was actually blessed to have some really supportive mentors over the years, who one, weren’t afraid to answer my questions, but also were in positions to give me additional responsibility.
What do you think so far of Sioux City?
It’s a great community. Obviously, I’m not new to the area, to the region. I’ve been living in Sioux Falls, and I’ve got a daughter that lives in Des Moines. So we’ve driven through Sioux City for the entire time we lived in South Dakota. So, I’m familiar with Sioux City, and getting to know it better and better. Occasionally I still have to use my GPS to get around town. But starting to find my way more and more.
It’s a nice city. It’s got very friendly people, and I could not have been welcomed more warmly than I have been here at MercyOne and by the people in the community that I’ve met so far.
What are your plans for the MercyOne Western Iowa organization? Are you thinking of making changes, or maintaining the status quo?
I don’t think status quo necessarily is good for any business, in this environment. But I don’t come in with an agenda. I learned a long time ago — from some of those mentors that I mentioned — that you have to get to know the community, you have to get to know the people. You have to get to know the community. So I’m doing a lot of listening, which I think is an important part of leadership. So I’m listening, taking a lot of notes.
It’s not smart to make changes just to make changes. I think we have some opportunities, and I’m still going through a little bit of that, I-don’t-know-what-I-don’t-know phase. And I’m starting to transition to the, I-know-what-I-don’t-know phase. Which means I’m starting to ask a little bit better questions, maybe a little bit more pointed questions.
So I think once I get a sense of the lay of the land, get to know the players better, then we’ll be able to have a better conversation about where are the opportunities, where should we be focusing, and how do we move forward.
Related to that, have you identified any obvious strengths or weaknesses in MercyOne Western Iowa?
A couple strengths jump right out. One, this community is blessed with a very strong provider base. We have some really world-class physicians in this community, that literally could be practicing anywhere. Some of them have. And they’ve chosen to be here, and practice here. And I think that’s not only telling about the community, but what I great place it is to practice medicine. So that’s first and foremost.
And secondly, I’ve just been so impressed with the people here. I came from Avera, which has a very, very strong mission focus. And one of the things that I was looking for when I came here was that same sense of mission and purpose — (is it) as strong here as what I experienced in other places? And it was!
I’ve been very impressed by the people here, and how they talk openly about supporting the MercyOne mission. And so, I think you’ve got staff that are dedicated and focused on serving the community, and living the mission. And you’ve got great providers who provide great care to their patients. It sets up a recipe for success, if it’s managed and organized appropriately.
And have you noticed anything that needs to be addressed?
Sioux City is not immune to what is going on in the country, and in the healthcare world in particular, across the country. Workforce shortages, workforce issues, recruitment and retention, are a huge issue for us, here at MercyOne, just as they are in hospitals across the country.
I don’t come here with a magic wand and a magic solution to fix that, but I think we’re doing a lot of the right things. Making sure our wages are competitive, making sure benefits reflect what employees are looking for in today’s world, making sure they have career growth opportunities, making sure that we’re working with our schools in developing a pipeline of future workers for healthcare.
So, I see all of that stuff going on here, which is good. But it’s just going to take time. If you look around, any business in the area, they’re short-staffed, they’re looking for people. And it’s just going to take time for that national issue, I think, to resolve itself.
Healthcare in general is just in a troubling time as we come out of the pandemic. Workers got burned out during the pandemic, and many left. Which hasn’t helped. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for services coming out of the pandemic, and I still don’t think we’ve seen the end result of that. A lot of people put off their healthcare during the pandemic, so now when we’re seeing people here at the hospital, they’re a lot sicker than what we were used to seeing, and it takes a lot more resources.
So I just think that, here we have to figure out what is the new norm for healthcare, and make sure that we’re aligned and moving in a direction that is congruent with where healthcare is going as an industry.