Chris Roth, St. Luke’s new president and CEO, is passionate about people and details; experiences he has written about illustrate both, still guide him and reveal the type of leader that will guide the organization into the future.
People matter: Roth saw a friend of a friend in the hospital, a woman whose mom had been battling terminal cancer. As he put his arm around her shoulder, she embraced him for some time and cried.
Only several years later did she tell him that when they met, she had just said goodbye to her mother who died soon after. She then thanked him for being there.
“That was the moment when I realized how simple acts of caring and compassion can impact a person,” Roth wrote. “It was a life lesson for me, to never underestimate the power of a simple act of kindness.”
Details matter too: In college, Roth began his health-care career as a pharmacy technician. After delivering patient IVs one morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
As he thought through the morning’s work, he realized his mistake of mixing 1,000 units of insulin instead of 100 units in an IV and rushed to the floor to retrieve it. He had it destroyed before it was administered, but he still thinks about the “what ifs.”
“I learned a great lesson that day,” he wrote. “I will make mistakes, but when things feel ‘automatic,’ and especially when the stakes are high, take time, pause and think.”
Life experiences and more than 30 years in health care have prepared Roth to lead one of Idaho’s largest organizations forward in its journey to make health care better, safer and more affordable.
From pharmacy tech, he moved into positions of increasing responsibility in administration, specialty practice management and executive and leadership positions. He joined St. Luke’s in early 2007, when the health system was less than six months old, and rose through various executive roles to system vice president and chief operations officer before being chosen as president and CEO.
He has led St. Luke’s Boise, the development and municipal approval of the Boise campus master plan and the integration of multiple clinics, practices and hospitals. Working with other leaders, he has played an essential role in shaping the health system and building a culture of continuous improvement.
He believes health care is a team sport.
“If we harness the collective strength in health care and the community, there’s no holding us back,” Roth said.
Roth is excited about the chance to influence the organization and strengthen relationships within St. Luke’s and the communities the health system serves.
“It’s really exhilarating,” he said. “We are, and have been, making a difference, and the opportunities are even greater.”
(Read Roth’s blog on “What Healthcare Consumers Want and Deserve.”)
Question: How do you approach change?
Answer: I’ve come to appreciate that it really is a true science and it needs to be very intentional. Communication, uniting around a common purpose, understanding why we need to unite in a common direction.
Question: What is the biggest challenge for St. Luke’s today?
Answer: Health care needs to undergo significant change. It’s not as affordable, it’s not as transparent, it’s not as safe, it’s not as certain as it can be and should be. We know that and are leading in many respects the journey to have a better health system. The challenge is in the journey to do it—the day-to-day, month-to-month challenge to do it.
We’re trying to fundamentally create a better health-care system for our community. That’s really my job, working with our team to lead us through that. Every leader, our board members, all leadership throughout the years, carry the ball. The difference now is that we have stated and backed up with our actions that we are going to change the clinical and financial model of heath care, and that is our challenge.
Question: What is St. Luke’s greatest strength?
Answer: It’s our caring people. Sometimes it’s difficult to think of health care as a business, but if you think about it, our product is care, and we have caring, compassionate, committed people united in making a difference.
Question: You’ve said you want to focus on culture. What does that look like?
Answer: St. Luke’s has had, and has today, a strong foundation of caring. We are a caring organization and it’s something we can build on. We need to intentionally shape and invest in the organization to embrace the greater elements of a learning organization, more team-based, more creative—being OK with failure when appropriate and learning from the things we try.
Because if we’ve set out a goal to really transform health care, we’re going to have innovation and creativity, and we’re going to do things differently. When I talk about culture, it’s about making sure we’re intentional about shaping that, and developing our talent skills, career development and flexibility in talent pool.
Culture exists either way, but we can be intentional about shaping it in a positive way.
Question: You’ve said relationships are most important as the organization moves forward. Why, and what effect will that emphasis have?
Answer: If you look at our footprint as a health system, it follows the footprint of the people who preceded us—the cancer institute and others. It starts with the relationship between an individual and a physician. It wasn’t a red brick in the community; it was a physician traveling to that community, being invited into that community.
We haven’t had a specific growth strategy; we have had a relationship strategy. Everybody has benefited as a result. We were invited into the communities.
St. Luke’s is the state’s largest employer because we embrace relationships. You can expect me to lead by example and to encourage others to do the same.
Question: You’ve said quality and safety are vital. How do we maintain the significant levels we’ve obtained while reaching higher? (For six of the past 10 years, St. Luke’s has been named one of the top health systems in the country.)
Answer: We are committed to being a national leader in quality; and we’ve done that by staying focused on our performance and raising the bar year after year. One thing we need to elevate more, and it’s a component of quality, is safety for those we provide care for and for those who provide care directly and indirectly. And it ties into culture, because when we are in an environment where we feel comfortable speaking up, speaking out, it ultimately improves care.
Question: What are you really into outside of work?
Answer: I have a busy home. I have four kids, two girls 19 and 16, and boys 11 and 9.
Outside work, I just want to be with my family and kids. We don’t all do the same things. In terms of activities, I like to play the drums; I have an electronic drum set and massive speakers. I skateboard with my daughter, play tennis. I love to downhill ski. (Note: He used to race on a regional ski team.) I love to fly fish, play golf, read and travel.
Question: What books have you read recently?
Answer: All books written by Lee Child (an author of crime thrillers). I tend to read a couple of books at a time. I got on a kick of classics: The Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo. I’m a third of the way through “War and Peace” (Leo Tolstoy’s novel of 1,225 pages). I’m reading things I can get through quickly, given the responsibilities I have now.
Question: What’s the best thing you learned from your mom or dad?
Answer: Mom started as an architect (who became a determined, passionate nurse, encouraging Roth to enter health care); dad was an aerospace engineer. I was trained to think about systems. I like to study things, I love science, particularly space. Part of that’s my dad; I’m a byproduct of my parents. My siblings are all scientists.
It’s a couple of things. One is how to be a good parent. They’ve raised really good kids who are good people, and a key to that was just encouraging me to be independent and let me kind of fail without failing. They didn’t hold my hand on everything.
Sandra Forester works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.