Behind the Scenes: Dennis Swan

President & CEO of Sparrow Health System in Lansing, Michigan

Sparrow is the region’s largest health system, and its diverse range of facilities offer residents some of the world’s most advanced medical technology available. What pride comes with serving our community?

Sparrow was founded on March 18, 1896, by 114 women — all volunteers. We are honored to have been trusted for over 121 years to 

care for people across mid-Michigan. As a community-owned, community-governed, not-for-profit organization, we are dedicated to always meeting the changing needs of this region. We are proud to offer 24/7/365 access to our team of outstanding people, modern facilities, the latest technology and patient-centered, evidence-based best practices.

What kind of personal experiences and knowledge do you bring to your role of CEO at Sparrow?

I returned to mid-Michigan from Ohio and joined Sparrow in 1981. Frankly, I fell in love with health care after 12 years in the banking field. With the encouragement and support of Sparrow’s physicians, board members, administrative leaders, staff and volunteers, I have been fortunate to learn, grow and advance at Sparrow. I have always had high aspirations for Sparrow and what we can do in conjunction with our strategic partners to make a difference in the lives of others. My primary focus is on recruiting, retaining, developing and engaging talented people to be contributing members of high-performance teams. Our plans and initiatives are always based upon our mission, vision, values and the Sparrow way.

Sparrow’s core values include innovation, compassion, accountability, respect and excellence. How do you see Sparrow keeping those values and visions true with its patient care and daily operations?

There is great uncertainty in health care as governments, employers and families struggle to ensure access to quality, affordable care. The velocity of change is steadily increasing, so innovation is an especially important Sparrow value. It’s essential for us to consistently stay focused on delivering excellence in both the art and science of medicine. Frankly, we are a heavily regulated field, but patients and caregivers alike ultimately judge us by whether they are always treated with dignity, courtesy, kindness and respect.

What are the advantages of working in a mid-sized city like Lansing?

The Greater Lansing area is an outstanding place to live, learn, grow, work and raise a family. People here have an exceptionally strong work ethic and are genuine, authentic and always willing to help others. Recruiting to this area is a matter of getting candidates to visit and experience the people, the safe neighborhoods and the strong, educational choices along with the career opportunities. At Sparrow, we believe a capital city of this size — a Big Ten University community — should always have local access to comprehensive, benchmark-level health care.

Where does Sparrow stand today in terms of employees?

Sparrow seeks to be the healthcare employer of choice. We are the area’s largest private employer with 8,500 full-time, part-time and per diem physicians, nurses and other caregivers. In total, the Sparrow family consists of 11,000 people, when you include our exceptional medical staff and outstanding volunteers.

When it comes to hiring employees in the field, are you finding qualified candidates?

We are blessed to have highly qualified candidates who seek to pursue their careers and raise their families here. Michigan State University’s three human health colleges, Lansing Community College and other public and private schools provide outstanding talent. Sparrow’s statewide and national visibility through the Mayo Clinic Care Network, the Michigan Hospital Association, the American Hospital Association, the Affirmant collaboration with leading health systems and other strategic relationships enable us to continue attracting the skilled people we need for the workforce of tomorrow.

The impending retirement of our baby-boom generation will also create a tremendous number of advancement opportunities for others. In that regard, it’s never too soon to begin to convince students that health care career choices extend beyond physicians and nurses. For example, there are wonderfully rewarding positions in information systems, construction, finance, communication, social work, pharmacy, imaging, laboratories, service areas and more.

Given your expertise, what are your thoughts on the current situation/outlook of the U.S. government and the presidency’s stance on health care reform?

The attention in Washington, DC and across the nation seems to be primarily focused on reimbursement reforms more so than on fundamental improvements in health and health care delivery. Access to care is an essential and fundamental right; we all deserve the opportunity to live long, healthy and productive lives, and all of that depends upon timely, affordable access to care. We need to confront the fact that the relatively high cost of care in America, compared to other countries, should always be accompanied with comparable quality outcomes. We must seek to avoid health care becoming a “have” and “have not” proposition.

Where should it be heading?

The clock is ticking. Given the demographic trends and the increasing percentage of our gross domestic product consumed in health care, changes are coming for all of us, at a rate much faster than the comfort level of people and organizations. It’s time for health systems like Sparrow to “disrupt” ourselves and continue to make key changes, to meet the needs and expectations of patients and consumers.

How will the proposed changes effect Sparrow employees and patients?

We can all expect to be asked to contribute in some way to improving health care delivery and financing. However, a good place to start is for each of us to take greater personal responsibility for our own health through proper nutrition, exercise, stress management and avoiding dangerous behaviors. Next, we need to be sure we have timely access to primary care for all age groups. At Sparrow, we believe the solutions will come through constant innovation and having the willingness and humility to learn from others, such as Mayo, regarding evidence-based best practices.

This conversation with Dennis Swan has been edited for space and clarity.

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Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn received her degree in Journalism from Lansing Community College. She’s a concert junkie; living and breathing in both the local and national music scene. She is proud to call Lansing her home, finding a new reason every day to be smitten with the mitten.

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