‘I was just enormously interested in science’

‘I was just enormously interested in science’

Eileen F. Skinner, 61

President and CEO, Mercy Health System of Maine

144 State St., Portland


Neither of Eileen Skinner’s parents were doctors ? an interesting fact, considering her degree of experience in healthcare, most recently as president and CEO of Mercy Health System of Maine.

“Neither of my parents graduated from college, and my father only finished grammar school,” said Skinner, a New Orleans, La., native who assumed her position at Mercy Hospital in September 2002.

Prior to Maine, Skinner served as the executive vice president of Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation and CEO of Ochsner Foundation Hospital, a 440-bed teaching hospital in New Orleans. She is married to John Skinner, M.D., a pathologist, and has three children, Robert, Amanda, and Katherine.

“I was just enormously interested in science,” she said, of what inspired her to begin a career in healthcare. “It’s a natural fit. I’ve spent my whole career in hospitals.”

Upon arriving to Mercy, Skinner took on the role of overseeing the construction of a new campus and state-of-the-art hospital building on the Fore River in Portland, which opened in 2008. And since then, she’s overseen a major initiative to open several new clinical programs and primary and specialty care practices, including urgent care facility, Mercy Express Care Plus, at Fore River.

“We’re always trying to think about what keeps people well, and costs less and is convenient,” Skinner said. “The idea is to be always pushing the envelope in terms of how care is provided.”

Skinner is active on several community boards including the Hanley Center for Health Leadership Board of Directors, Maine State Chamber, and the Maine Hospital Association Board of Directors. For the past two years, she has served as chairwoman of the Maine Hospital Association Public Policy Council.

In addition, Skinner is an active supporter of numerous breast cancer efforts and served as chairwoman of the American Heart Association 2009 Heart Walk. Following a fatal shooting of a Mercy Hospital security guard, Skinner became chairwoman of the Portland Community Chamber’s Crime Prevention Task Force.

She is a 2012 recipient of the American Heart Association’s Crystal Heart award for her continued promotion of the organization’s mission, and a 2012 recipient of the American Hospital Association’s Grassroots Champion award which, in part, “recognizes the achievements of grassroots leaders who have worked over the previous year to effectively deliver their hospital’s message,” on a local and national level, according to her online biography.

Skinner oversees three hospitals including Mercy State Street, Mercy Fore River and Mercy Westbrook. She recently spoke with Maine Women about her experience as president and CEO of Mercy and what it takes to succeed in the healthcare field.

Q: How did you get into healthcare?

A: I started out in healthcare as a medical technologist (clinical laboratory) due to my interest in science and in human biology; I had a double degree in biology/medical technology along with completion of a clinical internship. Although I worked in the hospital laboratory technical setting for a few years, I quickly moved to lab administration due to my ability to manage projects and develop teams. In addition, laboratory training is really based in models of quality improvement, an approach so fundamental to healthcare. I was promoted to laboratory director at a large teaching hospital and decided to obtain a master’s degree in health administration. This led to a fellowship in health administration at an academic hospital; I ultimately became CEO at that hospital in New Orleans.

Q: Did you have a mentor or an individual that was helpful to you?

A: My boss at the academic hospital was my most prominent mentor. She was willing to share her learnings with me as she herself transitioned from hospital operations to CEO. This is not something one learns in formal classroom settings. Her advice and insights (especially as a woman in a largely male dominated role) were invaluable to me as I myself moved from operations to CEO (actually following in her footsteps). In gratitude for this help, I have tried to do the same for others and often meet with young people starting out in their career to share learnings and insights, and to discuss their goals.

Q: What does it take to succeed in your field?

A: It is often stated that healthcare administration is one of the most complex roles created. It is a field which is highly regulated, going through massive change regarding payment approaches, facing declining reimbursement, with a complex matrix of providers with unaligned incentives. I cannot compare it to anything else; it is not for the faint of heart. To succeed in this field, I think one has to be centered by goals that rise above the complexity: i.e. quality, patient-centered care, alignment of incentives, and long-term vision. One also has to have the ability to break down complex issues into simple ones and surround oneself with a lot of bright, hard-working leaders. It is definitely team-oriented and, quite frankly, a labor of love.

Q: What advice would you offer to women interested in your line of work?

A: Especially today, it is important not to make gender assumptions about fit with healthcare roles and the industry. There are opportunities available for anyone at various stages of their lives and who may be looking for different levels of responsibility. Many women now occupy the “C” suite in healthcare. It is, however, generally hard work at a fast pace. It also requires a team-based and collaborative mindset; there are very few “solo” spaces that one can occupy today.

Q: What is the most meaningful part of your work?

A: It is the mission focus of Mercy that is the labor of love, i.e. providing high quality, compassionate care with special attention to the poor and disadvantaged. I am most energized by the opportunity to improve the lives of the people of our community and the state of Maine. This means helping someone in real time (providing access to care when it is needed), but also designing care (process, cost, quality, service, etc.) that raises the bar over time. For those unfamiliar with Mercy services, we have managed a number of initiatives over the last decade to develop the system in a way that we can push care to the communities, lower the cost, provide greater access to all people, improve processes, enhance our scope of service, and increase positive competition. Moreover, we prefer to work collaboratively with other organizations to develop partnerships of care; this allows all to play to their strengths and increase scale. The work is hard but very exciting, challenging, and rewarding.

Eileen Skinner is the president and CEO of Mercy Health System of Maine. Courtesy photo

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