CBIA BizCast: Yale New Haven Health’s O’Connor Comes Home
For Chris O’Connor, becoming president and CEO of Yale New Haven Health was something of a homecoming.
“I was born at Yale New Haven Hospital,” O’Connor told the CBIA BizCast. “I was a little premature, so I needed their special care unit and grew up here in New Haven.”
Not only was O’Connor born at Yale New Haven, but his his mother was a longtime nurse at the hospital.
“That was incredibly influential on both my growing up and watching her and the care that she provided, but also influencing what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
O’Connor got a job at St. Raphael’s emergency department when he was a sophomore in college.
“I think the emergency department is just a microcosm of hospitals,” he said. “You get to see everybody in all sorts of different states, and you work as a team.
“I think that really compelled me to my interest in healthcare and wanting to help.”
O’Connor said that experience in the emergency department helped him as he moved into hospital administration.
“The administrative connection to this frontline staff has always been something that I feel is critical,” he said.
“To try and decrease the disconnect between that frontline staff caregiver who was really doing the yeoman’s work for hospitals on a day-to-day basis, and what our policy and decisions are from an administrative perspective, that really got instilled to me.”
O’Connor said one of the most profound experiences of his career came in 2005.
He was working at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.
“I remember vividly driving into the hospital on the Sunday of the storm, and everybody was going out,” he said.
“What really was profound were the people coming together to serve. And they’re putting their life in peril, which I had never experienced in healthcare before.
“And it was amazing how that coalesced the team, and at the end of the day, it was still just about the care.”
He said that experience became a beacon for him throughout his career.
O’Connor eventually moved to Boston, and then came home to New Haven in 2009 to be CEO of St. Raphael’s.
He said he quickly realized that the hospital couldn’t stand on its own because of its financial position.
“It was very personal,” he said. “My job was to put it in the best position for the longest term that I could.”
St. Raphael’s was acquired by Yale New Haven Health in 2012, and O’Connor became president in 2021, at the height of the pandemic.
He said the lessons he learned during Katrina helped him lead the team during the pandemic.
“In Katrina, I think one of the things that we learned is communication is paramount,” he said.
“And I think some of those examples we could carry over into the pandemic.”
He said just like during Katrina, he is eternally grateful for how the team responded during COVID-19.
“Just amazing that when we didn’t have a lot of information, and there was great fear around the potential risk of infection, our people came to work every day to care for others.
“If you can’t be inspired by that commitment, I don’t know what could inspire you. It truly has been life changing.”
Still, one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic has been people leaving the healthcare industry.
“Folks said, you know, I’ve given as much as I can. I need to now focus on me, and they stepped away,” O’Connor said.
“That left us in a completely different, from an employee perspective and workforce perspective, dilemma.”
He said YNHH was working with schools and community partners to create new partnerships to develop its workforce.
“We need to come together and find ways to open that pipeline and to do that work in a way that produces more nurses and people interested to go into healthcare,” he said.
O’Connor said they are working on several initiatives to keep them on the cutting edge of medicine and research.
Those initiatives include building a deeper partnership with the Yale School of Medicine, and an $840 million building project that will focus on neurosciences and developing therapies and treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.
“We believe we can make an impact right here in New Haven from both the faculty that the university is investing in, and the care that we provide as the health system,” he said.
O’Connor added that he hopes those efforts will not only improve patient care, but also attract a high-quality workforce.
“We believe it’s critical because we are offering the latest and most complex treatments,” he said.
“And you can do it in an environment that teaching is part of who we are. It’s one of our core missions.”
Committed to Community
O’Connor said that beyond the Yale, they are committed to being a member of the New Haven and Connecticut communities.
“We’re here for good,” he said. “And we believe that we have to contribute to the growth and success of the state and our regions around us.
“Everything we do is about making our communities better, safer, and our people healthier.”
One of those efforts is the Closer to Free Ride, a bike ride benefiting the Smilow Cancer Center and the Yale Cancer Center.
The 13th annual ride was held Sept. 9 with hundreds of riders raising $3.3 million.
Since 2011, the ride has raised more than $29 million in the fight against cancer.
“Everybody’s been touched by cancer, I think very personally, and so it’s a very personal ride for folks,” O’Connor said.
“It really embodies that survivorship chase in terms of never give up, fight to the end.
“And so many people have done that on a daily basis, and we’re so proud of the care and the work that goes on at Smilow and the Yale Cancer Center.”
As he looks ahead to the future O’Connor said his goal is to look at ways YNHH can continue to expand.
He said the mission is to deliver the best care to the people they serve.
And reflecting on the challenges of the past few years, O’Connor says feels privileged to work with the YNHH team.
“What they’re doing, I marvel at,” he said. ”They have been working in an environment that is incredibly difficult.
“So my job is to help to support that and to ensure that they have the resources that they need to do their work.”
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