Press Profile: Dr. Rebecca Starck, M.D., president, Cleveland Clinic Avon Hospital


by Michele Murphy

She bounds around a corner, all smiles. “Have you ever had an official tour of the hospital?” she asks. So she looks up at the massive windows in the front entry of Cleveland Clinic Avon Hospital as she tells the story about the great care given to the building’s design. She explains the emphasis on light and other natural elements is to bring warmth to this place of healing.

Dr. Rebecca Starck, M.D. and president, is comfortable bragging about the sparkling facility on Lear Road in Avon. She is even happier praising her staff – nearly a thousand of them.

As she walks into the emergency department, she notes that 123 people came through the ER doors the day before. They are just a fraction of the estimated 36,000 visits they anticipate this year just in the emergency department.

She uses her ID card to swipe the small group following her through another door to meet medical technologists working in the lab. Here she boasts a bit more because department personnel just learned that the College of American Pathologists found them with zero deficiencies during their most recent evaluation.

Medical technologists are busy at computer screens doing their part to contribute to the hospital’s goal of preeminent patient care. Starck congratulates them on their achievement and the fact that it is Lab Week. As she heads to her next stop, Starck says the lab department invited all Avon Hospital employees to come and check them out when their new facility opened last year. Starck says she believes that kind of face-to-face interaction helps employees work better as a team.

As she comes off the elevator, she spots physician assistant Scott Peterson, makes introductions and explains his very key role in in-patient pain management and addressing the opioid crisis. Agreement about a meeting to discuss Peterson’s efforts is reached as Starck is joined by Dr. Brent Burkey, vice president of medical operations. Starck calls him her “clinical right hand.” Also joining are chief nursing officer MaryAnn Sauer and director of nursing Jacquie Nowlin.

They are on a mission to surprise an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse. Katelyn Schwert has no idea she is to be presented the Nursing Daisy Award, an international award, created and funded by a family who lost their son and who wanted to honor the nursing care he received. In Schwert’s case, she made sure food was ordered and paid for for a family who refused to leave the side of their family member.

ICU staff cluster in the center of the unit. Schwert joins them, unaware she is the one being feted. Then she recognizes a colleague in street clothes, and realizes the hospital’s top brass were in the crowd. Several speak about Schwert’s nomination for the award, as gifts symbolizing the the nursing profession’s focus on kindness and compassion were piled in her arms.

Starck tells Schwert and her colleagues,”You really do make a difference – all of you,” as her eyes sweep over nurses, doctors, a pharmacist assigned to ICU and a host of specialists.

Starck says their philosophy is simple, “Treat every patient like a member of your own family.”

Then Starck does something she does several times a week. She visits a patient. This time it is Elyria resident Catherine Sheetz, who did not hesitate when asked her opinion. “It’s like I’m the only patient in this place.” She says she was grateful a pharmacist came to her bedside to discuss medications and that doctors never left until all her questions were answered. “Care is just beyond…,” she trails off, then looks at Starck and says, “I’m glad the clinic built in Lorain County.”

Starck thanks her, wishes her well, sanitizes her hands as she had when she first walked into the room, and steps back into the hallway. She looks a bit sheepish as she explains that the effusive compliments were heartfelt, not “engineered,” from a patient who clearly has seen the inside of a number of hospitals. “It’s humbling,” she says.

Starck is running a tad behind schedule when she enters a meeting with the hospital’s management team. They were reviewing final plans for the next day’s “Quick Burst.” According to Starck, this is how the leadership team communicates important information to all employees. The brief programs are streamed via Skype at 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to ensure everyone has access to it.

Topics range from tracking progress on strategic initiatives to achievements of staff members or a focus on maintaining the “Avon culture,” a key ingredient to the initial successes and long-term positive impact the team plans for the hospital, its patients and staff.

Next she heads to nearby Emerald Center where Avon Hospital’s first Volunteer Recognition Lunch is being held.

As she walks, she talks about being a doctor and a hospital president. “I went into medicine to be a doctor,” she offers as a reason she still maintains her own obstetrics-gynecology practice. “I love taking care of patients.”

She says her administrative work allows her to focus on taking care of all the people who come to the clinic’s very busy Avon campus and that maintaining a practice keeps her connected in a unique way. She believes it is “meaningful having both perspectives.”

She enters a room where nearly 90 of Avon Hospital’s 150-plus active volunteers have gathered. She goes from table to table, thanking them, asking about their assignments, and for their thoughts about improvements. She places her hand on the arms or shoulders of volunteers who attempt to rise from their seats, instead bending towards them to be able to have a brief face-to-face chat.

Once she sits down, she reflects on “Avon culture.” Starck says when people come to Cleveland Clinic they expect world-class care. She says in addition to overarching goals of safety and quality care for patients, they have three more focus areas to make them distinctive from other health care facilities: comfort, compassion and impeccable communication.

As she has guided us through the facility, she has pointed out how the Cleveland Clinic Avon Hospital and its staff concentrate on large and small details to achieve these goals. Evidence of the impact of these efforts is the virtually nonexistent turnover in staff and extraordinary patient reviews, sought from each and every one.

From lunch, she heads over to her office on the other side of Avon to see patients. She no longer recalls the exact number of babies she has delivered, but knows it is in the thousands. “There’s nothing like having a baby,” she smiles, while emphasizing that every one is different.

Prior to being named president, Starck served as chair of the Regional Obstetrics-Gynecology Department. She helped launch what is now a popular midwifery program on the West Side and oversaw the development of the newly opened Family Birthing Place at Fairview Hospital, which focuses on unmedicated childbirth delivery.

Her colleague, Eddie Reardon, pops by to announce that there is cake and ice cream in honor of Administrative Professionals Day. “Second day in a row,” he enthused, “Avon Pointe. That’s us.”

Indeed, the seemingly small acts of kindness, a listening ear, asking patients, staff and volunteers what would strengthen their experience and saying thank you are the things that contribute substantially to “Avon culture.” The person who just may be doing the most of this is a dedicated doc named Rebecca Starck who dons a lab coat when seeing her own patients with a button on the collar that states “Patients First.”

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