New hospital leader eyes opportunities for growth

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Kalispell Regional Healthcare CEO Pamela Robertson poses for a photo inside her office Thursday. Robertson joined the KRMC team Sept. 15. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

Progress is visible from Pamela Robertson’s second floor office at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

From the expansive windows behind her desk, she can watch over the construction of the Montana Children’s Medical Center — the hospital’s latest and largest effort to expand its facilities.

Robertson is petite but vibrant, and speaks with passion as she discusses her foray into health care and hopes for the future of Kalispell Regional Healthcare.

Robertson began her career at the hospital Sept. 15, filling the vacancy left by former CEO Velinda Stevens who died in January from breast cancer. Stevens was long-heralded as a visionary who worked to expand health care in the Flathead Valley and grew the hospital from 1,200 employees to 4,000 during her tenure.

Robertson said she plans to stay true to Stevens vision to make the hospital a medical destination by expanding. Major projects under construction include the $40 million Montana Children’s Medical Center pediatric facility, a $14 million expansion of the emergency services department, and a $12.9 million digestive health center, which broke ground this summer.

“At this point in time, it resonates with me,” Robertson said of the continued growth. “It’s our opportunity, not our challenge, our opportunity to become that sort of fully aligned and integrated health system. We have so many wonderful components and I think we have the opportunity to enhance how they work together.”

Robertson’s journey to her current post began with a conversation with a high school friend.

Back then, she was living in her native Virginia, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. That friend suggested she speak with his father who worked as a radiologist.

“That launched my career,” she said. “The fact that we are improving either the health or the life or the comfort of somebody else …has always been a driving force for me.”

Robertson was certified as a radiology technician at Hampton General Hospital School of Radiology Technology in Hampton, Virginia, and worked her way up the ladder from there. Robertson took her first leadership role in 1992 as the director of cardiac, vascular and transplant services at Sentata Health System in Norfolk, Virginia. She stayed with the organization for 15 years and rose to the level of vice president of operations. Most recently, Robertson served as the president and CEO of the six-hospital network, Spohn Health System in Corpus Christi, Texas.

She heard about the opening in Kalispell from an acquaintance and was later approached by a recruiter for the position. Robertson was drawn to the job because of what she heard about the community, people and KRMC’s reputation.

“The beauty of the Flathead Valley is both the natural beauty and the people — it’s both. It’s a wonderful place to live,” she said.

Robertson used her first week to conduct a little bit of her own research. As she met and spoke with people in the area, she asked them what they really thought about the hospital and was astounded by the responses.

“I kept being told story after story after story about the care that was provided or the compassion that had been shown,” Robertson said. “I think right now, I’m just learning and listening and understanding how we got here. From there I can work with people to continue to shape where we were going or if we need to reshape something, we’ll do it.”

The primary challenges facing KRMC are facing hospitals across the country as leadership grapples with implications of possible changes to the Affordable Care Act and insurance reimbursements.

“Our challenges for the most part are the uncertainty of health care. How do you plan in a very deliberate way for the future, while maintaining that flexibility and agility that you need?” she said. “And this morning, we get up and Trump is going to sign an executive order for allowing insurance across state lines. So what are the implications of that?”

On the other hand, positive strides are being made too.

Patient care coordination has improved thanks to dedicated nurse navigators and other supportive specialties who walk individual patients through the treatment process, teach them how to manage chronic conditions and help translate medical dialect. She was also quick to point out unique assets home to Kalispell Regional, such as the ALERT air ambulance and upcoming pediatric center.

“We are a small community and by definition we’re rural, but if you look at the care and services that are provided by the extraordinary medical staff and employees of KRH, people don’t have to leave Flathead Valley for care, as a routine. So that’s unique,” Robertson said. “I fell really honored to be here and I do feel like I landed in a little slice of heaven.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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