From IWU Magazine, Winter 2013-14 edition
Bob Page ’79 helped turn around a troubled hospital by building on a culture of caring.
By TIM OBERMILLER
This year’s Distinguished Alumni award winner, Bob Page, spoke at a “Back to College”
class at Homecoming. An accounting major at IWU, Page is now president and CEO of
the University of Kansas Hospital. Watch his remarks on video. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
Bob Page ’79 uses many statistical tools to measure how patients are cared for at
the University of Kansas Hospital. But as he says, it’s stories — not stats — that
people relate to and remember.
The story Page is about to tell concerns a patient’s dying wish. And a burlesque dancer.
But before he gets to that, Page fills in some background for alumni and students
who have gathered for his talk in the Ames Library’s Beckman Auditorium. Page, back
for Homecoming to receive the 2013 Distinguished Alumni Award, is also teaching one
of the weekend’s popular “Back to College” classes. His topic: “How to Transform an
When he joined the nonprofit University of Kansas (KU) Hospital in 1996, “we were
in a world of hurt, to be honest,” Page says. KU had among the worst patient-satisfaction
rates in the country. A third of its workforce turned over each year, and employees
who were surveyed said they weren’t proud to work there and wouldn’t recommend its
services to a friend. At a time when the health industry was booming, KU was on pace
to lose $20 million annually by the year 2000.
The situation was dire enough to get the attention state legislators, who Page says
“threw a Hail Mary pass.” On Oct. 1, 1998, it made KU Hospital an independent entity,
ending 92 years of state governance as well as splitting it from the state university
system. The parting gift was a $23 million check, about 30 days operating cash. “They
pretty much patted us on the head and said good luck,” says Page.
The good news: KU Hospital was now in control of its own destiny and motivated to
make changes. “When you are facing what we were facing, you get focused pretty fast,”
says Page. “It was either that or close.”
Page’s accounting background told him the logical focus would be on improving the
hospital’s “market share, market size and the bottom line.” Instead, as vice president
of organizational improvement, he put himself in the shoes of the KU’s doctors and
nurses. “What do they think about when they go home from work each night? They want
to know they provided the best care possible to every patient that they have.”
Page and other hospital leaders decided to build on that as a means to “culturally
transform” KU Hospital. “We said that what we want to do is have world-class service
for every patient that comes in. We want to make sure they get the best outcomes possible.
And we need to put the right team together. If we do all that, we’ll grow, and we’ll
be okay financially.”
A remarkable turnaround ensued: the University of Kansas Hospital is now consistently
ranked by the University HealthSystem Consortium among the best academic medical centers
in the country for both quality and safety. For the past seven years, it has ranked
U.S. News and World Report’
s “Best Hospitals” lists. Of almost 5,000 hospitals evaluated for 2013-14, nine of
its specialties rank among the nation’s top 50.
Staff turnover has reduced to 11 percent annually (7 percent for nurses). Patient
satisfaction has moved to near the top in national rankings. And for a proof-is-in-the-pudding
stat, Page offers KU’s patient mortality index, which in 2013 was 0.65, meaning there
were 312 fewer deaths than expected, given a patient’s conditions.
Since 1998, inpatient admissions have risen 135 percent, outpatient visits are up
306 percent and the hospital has reinvested $1 billion into its operations. An expanded
and renovated Cancer Center and new Breast Center opened in 2003. The Center for Advanced
Heart Care, a $77-million, 238,000-square-foot facility, opened in 2006.
Since becoming KU Hospital’s COO and then being selected president and CEO in 2007,
Page is often asked to speak publicly about this turnaround. His PowerPoint presentation,
filled with bullet points, is set aside at his “Back to College” class as he tells
a story that gets to the heart of it.
The story involves “a retired military man in our hospital oncology unit, and he was
losing his battle with cancer.” Before departing his room on her rounds, a nurse asked
the patient if there was anything more she could do for him. She smiled at his response:
“I’d like a blonde to jump out of a cake.”
A few days later, when she asked him the same question, he answered, “If I can’t have
a blonde jump out of a cake, can I have a blonde, brunette or redhead come in and
sing and dance in my room?” The nurse thought about it and decided to pick up the
phone to call the historic Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City. A burlesque troupe
was in town, and she asked, “Do you guys have a dancer?”
Heads turned when, a few hours later, a striking woman came into the hospital attired
in a vintage red, white and blue sailor swimsuit. The staff led her to the patient’s
room, where he and his family watched with delight as she sang and danced, later having
her picture taken with the smiling group. A family member later wrote the hospital,
thanking them for making their father’s last day special, “because five hours after
that, he died in our hospital,” says Page.
“We tell that story because we don’t have a policy on how to go get a dancer. And
we don’t have a policy on how to bake cakes for patients to celebrate their birthdays
or how to marry a couple in palliative care. What we have is a culture that says we
do the right things for our patients. In fact, every orientation we say, ‘Here’s the
deal, guys, if you’re ever struggling, ask yourself one question: What’s the right
thing to do for the patient?’ If you do that, you’ll be fine."
Page accepted the Distinguished Alumni award from President Wilson and Alumni Association
President Sundeep Mullangi ‘97. His invited guest was English Professor Robert Bray,
whose low grade for Page’s first college paper inspired him to do better. (Photo by
As Illinois Wesleyan’s Distinguished Alumni
winner, Page could invite any member of the campus community to sit with him at the
annual Homecoming Luncheon in the Shirk Center. He chose Bob Bray, the R. Forrest
Colwell Professor of American Literature. It might seem like an odd choice for an
accounting major, but Page explained why: Bray gave him a D on his first college paper.
Page, who was a salutatorian of his high school class, felt grateful for Bray’s honest
assessment. “It was one of those things that motivates you. Thirty-eight years later,
I still remember it. It introduced me to college, and it introduced me to hard work.”
A native of Elgin, Ill., Page was recruited by Jim Routi ’63, who retired as dean
of University Admissions in 2003 after 40 years at IWU. “He was very charismatic,
and when I met with him we were done,” he says. Page cites Wesleyan’s influence throughout
his career. “A liberal arts education gives you confidence, because you have this
broad background. You’re not pigeonholed in one specific area.”
He launched a post-graduation career in corporate accounting but felt restless after
a few years. He began thinking about careers where he could really feel like he was
“making a contribution.” Around this time, Page experienced his father’s death of
colon cancer. “I watched the healthcare system — what worked and what didn’t work
— and began to think about a career in healthcare. I haven’t looked back since.”
At Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, he worked in internal audit. After earning his M.B.A.,
he was promoted to director of audit services and also began tackling quality-improvement
projects. His former boss at Jewish Hospital, John McGuire, was interviewed about
Page in a profile for the
Kansas City Business Journal.
“I was looking for people who wanted to get out of their cubicles and figure out
how the hospital ticked, how it could be better. And I didn’t have to push Bob,” said
McGuire. “He was always looking for ways to do a better job for the people coming
to us for their care.”
While most people associate a hospital career with doctors, nurses and technicians,
Page says administrators play an invaluable supportive role, and he encourages business
majors to consider it among their career options. “Because as a CEO, I go home every
night, and I will tell you I feel like I’ve made a contribution.”
For the annual Rose Parade, hospitals across the U.S. gave
roses for a float honoring organ donors. Each rose vial
held a message from a hospital executive. For his, Page wrote
that KU Hospital honors “patients, families and staff whose commitment to others makes
the gift of life possible.”
Still, there are daunting challenges facing Page and hospital leaders across the country.
“It does get harder to improve,” he says. “The bar keeps rising in healthcare, and
what’s difficult today is with the healthcare reform going on in this country. We
are being expected to do more with less. And so the focus now has to be on efficiency
and effectiveness as well as quality and service, and with all of that we still have
to make sure we have enough money at the end of the day that we can reinvest in our
“Where my frustration is today,” he adds, “is that we were focused on costs, and we’re
not focused on
I don’t think you can talk about cost without talking about quality.”
In regards to the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), Page says, “The idea of having insurance
for everyone makes sense. Last year alone at our hospital, the cost of taking care
of patients that had no insurance was $52 million. That was the cost, that’s an operating
expense for our organization.”
However, Kansas is among states that have not yet decided whether to participate in
providing state Medicaid coverage to a greater number of uninsured people who qualify
for that coverage under the ACA. In its 2012 ruling upholding most of the ACA law,
the U.S. Supreme Court said the federal government couldn’t compel states to expand
Medicaid. This creates a financial shortfall for KU and other hospitals that stand
to lose federal funds because the ACA assumed Medicaid would expand. The resulting
loss of KU Hospital’s expense base could be tens of millions of dollars per year,
“which is pretty mind-numbing to be honest,” says Page.
Looking down the road, Page sees an even bigger problem: one of supply and demand.
People now live longer and incur more chronic diseases the longer they live. “So there’s
your demand, and the supply is declining as fewer and fewer people are going into
medicine who will be providing that care.”
To survive all these shifts, Page predicts “what you’ll see in healthcare in the very
near future will be consolidation of organizations, because a lot of organizations
won’t be able to make it on their own. You’ll see closures of hospitals that can’t
Page believes KU Hospital has positioned itself to survive and thrive through these
changes, but it isn’t resting on its laurels. He doesn’t want KU to be like those
radio one-hit wonders, who top the charts and are never heard from again. He holds
up to scrutiny mistakes that have been made, and he lists plenty of areas for improvement.
One thing that’s not changing, he says, is KU’s commitment to put patients first.
“How do we go in and redesign this,” he asks, “so we make it about you and not about
us? And that’s a big challenge, but I believe that is the future of healthcare.”
To read Page's advice on turning around an ailing organization, click here.