COVID-19 brings Texas State Distinguished Alumnus to the Front Lines
Even in a normal year, Ernie W. Sadau (M.S. ’85) would have his hands full at his job as the CEO and president of CHRISTUS Health, a Catholic, faith-based, not-for-profit health system with $8 billion in total assets and $7 billion in net revenue. It has more than 600 facilities and 45,000 associates.
Sadau could never imagine that 2020 would bring COVID-19 and that healthcare workers would be leading the battle.
It was 2011 when Irving-based CHRISTUS named Sadau, a Texas State Distinguished Alumnus, to its top spot. He joined CHRISTUS as senior vice president of patient and resident care operations in 2006. Sadau is married to Roxanne, a registered nurse. They have two sons, Zachary and Blake. This spring the Sadaus became grandparents -- and like many others, didn’t get to see their first grandchild until he was home from the hospital and then they had to glove up and wear masks. Not only that, but Blake had to postpone his wedding until later in the year. COVID-19 has impacted his family in many ways, but it has made Sadau even more committed to his chosen career path.
“There are so many opportunities in healthcare,” he says. “Especially with some of the things we are going through today with COVID-19. It will open even more avenues that we can’t even imagine in healthcare from telemedicine – how that gets expanded and in what ways -- to the technology side (or) IT. Things are going to evolve over the next few years. It will be challenging and exciting. Healthcare will be transformed to a whole different and expanded level because of COVID-19.”
Those are the themes that Sadau comes back to – the challenges, the passion, the blessings, and the opportunities. “I have never looked back. I have never said to myself ‘I wish I had checked out another career,’ ” he says.
Sadau was in high school when he first considered his future career. Originally, the Texas native wanted to be a doctor. His grandfather, a rancher, also wanted him to be a doctor. His parents wanted him to go to college. While a high school junior, Sadau was hospitalized.
“I was laying in bed and was thinking – who is running this place? When they brought my meal tray on the last day, there was a card asking about my care. I filled it out and wrote a note saying I would like to have a meeting with the administrator.” A few weeks later he got an invitation to have lunch and take a tour with the hospital administrator. He would later meet with two other hospital CEOs.
“It was like this beautiful combination of being able to be of service to others, be in the healthcare environment, help people, and be able to use leadership business skills,” he says.
CHRISTUS Health operates in four states including Texas, also in Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. It includes 65 hospitals, and ambulatory centers, physicians’ groups, and health plans. Newest among the CHRISTUS hospitals is Central Texas Medical Center in San Marcos, which was acquired in April. In discussing the size and scope of CHRISTUS, Sadau says he has been blessed with great teams, a supportive board of directors, and encouraging sponsoring congregations.
His advice for those considering a career in healthcare: “They have to do what they feel they have a love and a passion for. Not just do it because it is potentially the hottest job on the market or just the pay.
“I think healthcare is to me so rewarding in the ways that we can help people, the wonderful stories from our patients and our customers,” he says. He pauses as he searches for a quote from Peter Drucker, educator and management consultant whose writings contributed to the foundation of modern American business corporations. Drucker said: “The modern hospital is the most complex form of human organization ever created.”
In an industry that is very well regulated, Sadau says he choose to work for a faith-based organization “because it aligns more in my view with my commitment. The mission is giving back and helping people.”
In this election year, the issue of affordable healthcare is on many minds. What does Sadau think about healthcare for everyone?
“It is a tough question to answer because there are so many differing views,” he says. “From my standpoint it goes back to why I chose to work in a faith-based healthcare system. We work to take care of everyone. Everyone who is sick and vulnerable, no matter their ability to pay. I strongly do believe that everyone should have access to healthcare, and it should be readily accessible. I don’t think it is as easy as everyone says in relationship to the payment structure because there are obviously varying views on that.
“I do believe that healthcare needs are so individual. There are differing needs for everyone. There is not an overarching one solution for every situation. It is an important responsibility for us as a country to provide that access,” Sadau says.
To address the shortage of qualified people in the healthcare industry, Sadau says that CHRISTUS Health is working with universities – including Texas State – to build relationships and mentor the pipeline for residencies that are needed. CHRISTUS Health also provides tuition assistance for nurses, physicians, and those in clinical education.
Because budget cuts have led to rural hospital closings in the U.S. there are populations living in what has been called a “medical desert” – communities that lack a hospital or clinic. Sadau says that the COVID-19 pandemic means that many more people are comfortable using telemedicine and digital meetings with such things as Zoom or computer chats. “We went from maybe 300 telemedicine visits a day – before COVID – to ramping up in a matter of weeks to 9,000 (a day).”
Sadau explains that the CHRISTUS health system – with the exception of facilities in San Antonio – has hospitals in mostly mid-sized and rural markets in the U.S. “We have always worked from the standpoint of how can we provide the appropriate care? For example, a consult with a specialist who is in Tyler for a patient in a small rural community. That is how you provide access – to be more intentional about that is important. That’s one of the key areas – having access doesn’t mean you necessarily have to have a hospital,” he said. “Can you get diagnosed? Can you get the specialty consult? How quickly can you get transferred to that center to take care of your needs?”
The onset of COVID-19 has forced the healthcare industry to open up every means possible including virtual doctor visits. “I don’t see insurers and the federal government going back to the way it was. It may get modified,” he says. “There will be more avenues of technology, those healthcare needs can be taken care of and monitored.”
The keyword, Sadau says, is flexibility. “Be agile and move quickly in one direction or the next.”