Sonoma Valley Hospital CEO Works to Make a Difference

Though he’s held six positions at community hospitals in his career, one thing that is different for the 51-bed Sonoma Valley Hospital CEO John Hennelly this time around is he’s not actually employed by the hospital.

Hennelly’s employer is the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). The Sonoma Valley Healthcare District has an agreement with the university to run the hospital.

Hennelly, 50, holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies from American University and earned his MBA from Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, and the oldest of four children, Hennelly now resides in Petaluma with his wife and two teenage children. He’s also an unabashed St. Louis Cardinals fan.

He talks with the Business Journal about the UCSF agreement and why he came to the hospital this past spring. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How does Sonoma Valley Healthcare District’s arrangement with UCSF work?

The district has an agreement with the university to run the hospital, which is sort of separate from the affiliation. They said, “We want UCSF to run the hospital.” So myself, my chief financial officer, my chief medical officer, and the head of (information technology) are all employees of UCSF.

Now, I don’t spend a day down in the city. I spend my time here, and I work with the board here. But that’s the arrangement.

What was it about Sonoma Valley Hospital that sold you on wanting to become its CEO?

Two things drew me here. One, it was very clear to me that this community values its hospital, and one of the CEO’s toughest jobs is going out and building support. That was evident from day one that that didn’t need to happen. We needed to work on delivering on the expectation to the community, but not building awareness and support.

The emergency room was funded almost entirely by philanthropic support … $50 million was given to the hospital, and that’s extraordinary. And now we’re doing this diagnostic center, which is another $20-ish million of pure philanthropic support. In today’s world, community hospitals cannot survive without that.

And what was the second reason you joined the hospital?

The second piece was the affiliation with UCSF. It’s enormous.

Now, the attraction is really about the fact that UCSF… was interested in engaging in the community hospital. It’s been a frustration for my whole career that you’re banging your drum, like, ‘Hey, you have all of these assets and skilled people and here is where the need is,’ and oftentimes those centers will be internally focused. UCSF was very clear that they want to partner with their affiliated hospitals and provide care, and they’re doing it.

You will be changing your in-hospital-only electronic health records on Dec. 3 to Epic, a system that is networked with the big health care systems. Please describe the impact.

What happens often is patients will come in, they’re not our patients, but they’re here emergently. And there’s all of this information within their home health system that we can’t see. We put Epic in, now we can see it. That will reduce unnecessary care … and it will increase the transparency between what we do here and (the patient’s) home location, or vice versa.

What have been your biggest job challenges so far?

The (hospital) environment is incredibly stressful and challenging, and COVID made it even more challenging. So, trying to remain strong despite COVID has been a daily effort.

You started at SVH halfway through the pandemic. What was the lowest point for you?

… when we had dozens of staff members out at the same time and having people who are already strained, stressed and exhausted, covering the shifts of the people who couldn’t be here. I hope we don’t go back to it.

SVH received travel nurses, but also lost staff for the same purpose. What was the impact?

It helped make our financial situation more strained. It’s very expensive. It’s essentially nurses within our workforce that are moving from a full- time job to a travel job. It wasn’t just nurses, it was techs, all specialties.

So, you’re depleting your main workforce as you infuse it with these higher-paying positions and travel nurses. So, it’s not that we lost nurses, it’s that the industry transitioned nurses from stable jobs to travel jobs, and just drove the costs up.

Tell us about your passion for healing through food.

A hospital is one of the few places that really is responsible for role modeling the right choice. I don’t expect McDonald’s to sell you healthy solutions; they’re there to give you a quick hit. But hospitals need to role-model the right choices and make them palatable and attractive.

Hospitals need to role-model the right choices and make them palatable and attractive.

So, it’s going after things like bacon, soda and chocolate, and replacing them with alternatives that people will buy, such as hummus and pretzels, fresh fruit and vegetables.

What I’ve done in the past, but haven’t done here yet, is (put together) recipes with the spices and, potentially, the meat to take home and make the meal. We prepackage it for you, kind of like mail-order services like HelloFresh. They give you everything, you just have to put it together.

What kind of issues related to the overall health care system weigh heaviest on your mind?

I am a big proponent of capitalism and the United States, but it’s challenging me to see how we’ve been evolving over the last five years in the health care environment. I don’t see us doing our best, I don’t think the system is doing its best for consumers.

Supply should meet demand. There’s huge, overwhelming demand out there and the supply is constrained by insurance companies. … Health care should not be a bankrupting issue and I struggle with that because I’m a believer that our country encourages innovation, and the free market encourages innovation. I don’t want to stifle our ability to innovate, but I also don’t want to starve people on basic human rights. How do you marry those two? I don’t know.

Tell us a bit about your upbringing.

I grew up in a big Irish family and was educated by the Jesuits, and they really impressed that service of community and an obligation to make sure that you are, as they say, ‘a man for others.’ And so that has really stuck with me through my career and really wedded me to community hospitals.

Being a Midwesterner, we probably won’t be seeing you at Oracle Park anytime soon.

I was born and raised in St. Louis, which makes me a Cardinals fan. They’re doing very well this year. And we’re having a great time with Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. So that’s fun. (Editor’s note: both longtime players are retiring this year; Pujols recently hit his 700th career home run.)