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Sister Mary Jean Reflects on SSM Health Care Work

On Monday, William Thompson took over leadership of the system, which includes SSM St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights.

On Monday, when Sister Mary Jean Ryan handed the reins of SSM Health Care over to William Thompson, the system's new president and chief operating officer, it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.

As SSM’s first and only president and chief executive in the system’s 25-year history, Sister Mary Jean led the not-for-profit system through its fledgling years until it emerged as a leader in quality health care. The system includes SSM St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights.

Under Sister Mary Jean’s leadership, SSM earned an international reputation as a pioneer in the use of quality measures to improve health care.

Sister Mary Jean’s departure also means Catholic health care is losing one of the last sister CEOs. It’s a trend across the country—with a shortage of nuns in the U.S., sisters are increasingly preparing laity to take over leadership.

When the , Sister Mary Jean’s order, merged its hospitals into one system in 1986, it tapped Sister Mary Jean to head it. She drew on her years of experience as a nurse and hospital administrator to forge, over the years, SSM’s reputation for quality care.

SSM Health Care owns 15 hospitals and two nursing homes in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. SSM has 6,500 employed or affiliated physicians and 23,000 employees. 

“We’ve really become, I think, known as an organization totally committed to quality and quality improvement,” Sister Mary Jean said. “If that’s what people could say about me—that I was leading SSM at the time we did these things—I’d be happy with that.”

In 2002, SSM received recognized as a provider of quality care when it became the first health care organization to receive the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Sister Mary Jean’s years of hard work boil down to three areas of strong commitment—to preserve the earth, to increase diversity in the system and to achieve quality improvement.

With her at the helm, SSM instituted many green practices early on. “You won’t find a bottle of water anywhere in any of our hospitals or in our corporate office,” said Sister Susan Scholl, an SSM board member.

Her commitment to the environment comes from the order’s commitment to non-violence, Sister Mary Jean said. “That extends to whatever we do to the earth, and we know that we have done violence to the earth,” she said.

Through the years, Sister Mary Jean also strived for diversity in SSM’s board and leadership, knowing that the populations the hospital serves are diverse.

“My goal has always been to get some diversity on these boards,” she said. “Having a board of 15 white guys does not necessarily mean you’re going to be as good as you need to be. We need that diversity. If you don’t even have it as a moral principle, at least look at it as a good business practice.”

Sister Mary Jean tapped Thompson to succeed her and worked together with him for two years on what they hope will be a seamless transition.

“There will always be a change, and when it (the transition) is at this level of the organization, it’s pretty dramatic. And my long tenure, of course, make it even more dramatic.”

Sister Mary Jean stays on as chair of SSM Board of Directors and SSM’s six other regional and divisional boards, but that role is far different from that of CEO, she said.

Thompson, who has worked with Sister Mary Jean for 30 years and co-authored a book with her, is well aware of the proverbial big footsteps he will walk in.

“Sister Mary Jean is leaving a legacy of care and compassion and excellence at SSM Health Care,” he said. “We are very fortunate that she will remain as chair of our board to continue to provide us her guidance and wisdom as we approach the future."

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