When Dianne J. Anderson was mulling over college options as a teenager, she knew there was more at stake than getting a degree. As an only child and the first person in her family to attend college, a lot was riding on her decision. “I was the first to go to college,” Anderson explains. “It was a big, big deal for me.”
A degree was only the beginning. After college, Anderson’s career path led her in various directions. For starters, she helped open the Health Care International Medical Centre in Scotland. She also worked as a pediatric nurse at Floating Hospital for Children in Boston; she served as a senior vice president at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and she became president of the American Organization of Nurse Executives. Today, Anderson is president and CEO of Lawrence General Hospital, which, with 1,800 employees, is among the largest organizations in the Merrimack Valley. Being the hospital’s first female president and CEO is especially meaningful to Anderson, since it was a group of women who founded the institution, in 1875.
Today, Lawrence General is a rising powerhouse in the area’s medical scene. Strengthened by a clinical affiliation with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, it is quickly evolving from a community hospital to a bona fide regional medical center, offering services that previously required a trip to Boston.
“When I started here, I saw we needed to bring in state-of-the-art, high-tech surgical services,” Anderson says. A new $72 million Master Facility Plan, due to be completed by the end of 2016, will replace current operating and recovery rooms with a new surgical center and renovate several inpatient units. In 2015, the hospital also introduced the technology to support state-of-the-art breast imaging at its two centers, headed by a highly respected radiologist recruited from Mass General.
“I realized these were all very important key factors for us to have as a regional healthcare center,” Anderson says. “And it’s at a lower cost than at a big urban hospital.” Children’s healthcare is a big positive. “Thanks to our partnerships with Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts and our excellent local pediatricians, parents in our region don’t have to schlep all the way to Boston to get that care for their kids,” Anderson says. Lawrence General’s Emergency Center, one of the busiest in the state, serves around 70,000 people a year, a quarter of them children.
Simultaneously juggling three major projects—the renovation of patient rooms, the new surgical center, and the new Andover Medical Center—would be a feat for any CEO, says Matt Caffrey, an attorney in Andover and the chair of the Lawrence General Board of Trustees for two years. “Any one of these projects would consume a CEO’s time and attention,” he says. “To have all three going on simultaneously, however, means that Dianne is a very busy person these days. Both of the large capital projects have required enormous amounts of time and energy to be sure that they are completed on time, and on budget. I am happy to report that they are.”
Anderson was selected to lead the hospital in a national search almost seven years ago, on the cusp of great changes (and challenges) in the healthcare system, especially on the financial side. As Anderson says, there are obstacles. “Reimbursements in healthcare are really under the gun,” she says. “They’ve continued to decrease.” The $72 million investment to build the new surgical center is, she says, “a big challenge.”
For someone like Anderson, challenges often represent opportunities. Richard Santagati of Andover, a consultant and Chairman Emeritus of Lawrence General’s Board of Directors, says that Anderson became the face of the hospital at a time when it was struggling for market awareness and understanding. “Community hospitals always struggle for airtime,” Santagati says. “Through her commitment and energy, she has brought attention to the strength, quality, and efficiency of Lawrence General Hospital as a regional healthcare provider.” In February, the hospital announced that Santagati sealed his commitment to the institution with a $1.25 million gift.
Lawrence General was one of seven hospitals in Massachusetts to participate in the Delivery System Transformation Initiative, part of the Affordable Care Act, to show that quality care can have a modest price tag. Under the initiative, Anderson says, the hospital is asserting it can provide local access to outstanding care, at an affordable, sustainable price, while, Anderson says, “bringing $44 million to the region in federal and state money.”
Lawrence General’s fast-paced movement toward more advanced and available services is bringing another boon to the region—community partnerships with agencies such as Elder Services of Merrimack Valley and the Merrimack Valley Home Health Foundation (the area’s Visiting Nurse Association), which allow the services to excel and help reduce duplication. “This is what I call care beyond the walls of the hospital,” Anderson says. “This is about how we can add primary care physicians and more specialty care, and provide the best care outside the hospital.”
The simple fact that Anderson became a hospital CEO, not in Fortune 500 style, but as a clinician may explain her efficient work mode as well as the hospital’s financial successes. “Over the past few years, there’s really been a switch to a desire for CEOs to have a clinical background,” Anderson says. “Having a clinical background, as a physician or nurse, you really understand the needs of the patients and the caregivers.”
Her experience as a clinician also has given Anderson a prime spot for seeing the value of advancing services. “We’re really expanding our clinical capacity,” Anderson says, including offering the Merrimack Valley’s first verified Level III Trauma Center, by the American College of Surgeons; an accredited Bariatric Center of Excellence; and a new Cardiac and Outpatient Rehab Center. “It’s very exciting,” Anderson says, noting that the news about the trauma center’s re-verification had just crossed her desk. Other recent good news is a new $1.5 million grant to help the hospital manage patients who require complicated care.
And there is more: The hospital is also the only certified Chest Pain Center in the Merrimack Valley. Just last year, the hospital opened the new Andover Medical Cen-ter in collaboration with Pentucket Medical Associates. And all this while achieving the status of high performer on the Commonwealth’s patient safety indicator rating.
When Anderson took the helm, she says she had a lot to learn about Lawrence General. “But I saw it had such potential,” she recalls. “I called it the best-kept secret in the Merrimack Valley, and beyond.” She couldn’t have done it, she says, “without the vision of the board and the potential of the organization. I work with a truly outstanding staff; I’m in awe of them every day.”
She credits people she has learned from along the way. “In every role I’ve ever had, I’ve had the great fortune to work with many outstanding mentors,” Anderson says. “I encourage my team, the folks who work with me here, to seek out a mentor. It’s probably the single best way to develop your skills and expertise.”
When Anderson goes to her Holliston home at night, she and her husband, Scott Anderson—an executive at New England Baptist Hospital—try to keep work talk to a minimum. They would rather hear what kind of day their son, Nikolai, 12, had. “He’s a great, great young man,” Anderson says. “Like any kid, he’s into electronics. It’s hard for us to keep up with him.” She welcomes parental guidance. As Anderson says with a lilting laugh, “I’m always looking for advice.”