Dennis Burke announced Friday he is retiring as CEO of Good Shepherd Health Care System in 2020.
Burke said he doesn’t know exactly what he will be doing after, but he thinks he “still has a few years of relevancy left.”
“I don’t want to just sit on the porch and rock,” he said.
Burke spent 31 years at the helm of the Hermiston hospital, transforming it from a 250-employee hospital to a 700-employee health care system with services ranging from chiropractors to urgent care. GSHCS chair Steve Eldridge said Burke’s leadership enabled Good Shepherd to “thrive.”
“We have experienced very significant growth under his direction and improved quality of care,” he said in a statement.
Eldridge said he helped put Good Shepherd on the “political map” through efforts with the state legislature and testifying before Congressional committees about rural healthcare.
Burke has served on many boards and committees, including the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems board, OAHHS Small and Rural Hospital Committee, OAHHS Governance Committee and the Political Action Committee and the Critical Access Hospital Leadership Committee of the National Rural Health Association.
“His experience, expertise and passion for providing healthcare services to rural communities have made him a sought-after speaker and panel member on rural healthcare issues,” Eldridge said.
Burke said he will likely retire sometime between March and July of next year, staying on as CEO until the GSHCS board has been able to find a strong candidate and make the transition to new leadership.
He has overseen many transitions for Good Shepherd in the past, from adding new services and purchasing clinics to building multi-million dollar expansions of the medical campus on 11th Street.
The health care industry itself has also changed. Burke said the past three decades have seen major medical advancements and new technology introduced to the field. Providers coordinate care through electronically-shared records. Hospitals have identified best practices to keep patients healthy and are more regulated.
“Hospitals are safer,” Burke said.
There have been challenges too. Increased reporting requirements have added demands on providers’ time, as have more strenuous training requirements. Burke said the way hospitals are financed has undergone “dramatic” changes.
“In rural America, we’re losing a rural hospital every month,” he said.
While rural hospitals struggle to stay staffed and stay afloat financially, they have to balance the rising costs of health care for patients. Burke said the country needs to look at the “inputs” into health care that cause those cost increases.
Those inputs include rising prescription drug prices, increased personnel costs driven by physician and nursing shortages, and increased regulations.
“Every time a new regulation comes out — well intended — there is rarely an accurate calculation of how much it will cost to implement it,” Burke said.
During his time at Good Shepherd, Burke has testified on those issues before the Oregon Legislature and Congressional committees. He said he doesn’t see the United States going to a socialized, single-payer health care system — something he’s “not a fan of” — but the country does need to continue to create solutions for increasing the affordability and availability of health care.
While rural hospitals struggle to retain staff, Burke said Good Shepherd has been more successful in recruiting and retaining providers in recent years.
“Obviously that’s a benefit to the community, that we’re getting the number of physicians we need,” he said. “For many years we didn’t have nearly enough, and now it’s getting better. We grow our own, and that’s helped.”
It also helps that Good Shepherd has been named one of The Oregonian’s top workplaces in Oregon multiple times. Burke said there are many reasons Good Shepherd is a great place to work, but its people definitely top the list.
Burke said he hadn’t necessarily intended to spend so much of his career in Hermiston, but the community became home and he has “deeply loved” the work.
“The job is challenging, but I have enjoyed it immensely,” he said.
Burke got his start in the health care industry in the 1960s, when his father, a hospital administrator, hired him as a janitor. Burke encouraged young people to consider a job in health care, calling it a fulfilling experience.
“It’s a career that’s not going away,” he said. “Even though we don’t know what changes the future holds for the industry, people will still need care.”