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New UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids CEO takes the reins

GROW IN PLACE

Michelle Niermann will take over as UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids president and CEO at the beginning of the year. Niermann succeeds Ted Townsend. Photographed at Unity Point-St. Luke’s Hospital in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Michelle Niermann will take over as UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids president and CEO at the beginning of the year. Niermann succeeds Ted Townsend. Photographed at Unity Point-St. Luke’s Hospital in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Michelle Niermann might be new to the position of president and chief executive officer at UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids. But she has worked for the organization for the past 25 years, most recently as senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Originally from a small town in central Illinois, Niermann came to Iowa in the early ’90s for the health care administration program at the University of Iowa.

After interning with the insurance side of things and realizing it was not a fit for her, Niermann worked on gaining hospital experience during her second year of graduate school and then through an administrative fellowship at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

“I got to go to board meetings and met people all throughout the organization,” she said. “I got to see things clinically. It was a really wonderful experience.”

At that time, she had zero expectation of being able to continue working at St. Luke’s, but that would be her career — one, she said, that allowed her to “grow in place.”

“While I’ve worked here the entirety of my professional career, I’ve worked for two distinct leadership eras under two different CEOs,” she said. “It was beneficial to see their style and how it influenced the organization.”

Niermann was appointed CEO on Jan. 1 and said she is learning as she goes.

“I worked with our former CEOs, but until you get into this role, you can’t fully appreciate it,” she said. “I am excited to build on the strong, healthy work culture here as people want to do great work with great colleagues. That creates better outcomes for our patients, too.”

With more than 4,000 employees, Niermann believes in good communication and transparency.

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“We want to make sure that people are valued, appreciated and have a sense of camaraderie and community,” she said.

Niermann said she’s seen a fair amount of change in her years at St. Luke’s and UnityPoint.

“It’s interesting that sometimes the day-to-day changes aren’t things you notice, but I’ve seen us make big shifts in 25 years, not just as a hospital but as a health care system,” she said, noting St. Luke’s had 40 to 50 physicians when she started and now has a network of 225 doctors.

“That changes what you can accomplish as a team,” she said.

Among the changes has been the development of outpatient locations for care, the addition of Jones Regional Medical Center and skilled nursing facilities, with AbbeHealth that latest addition to the UnityPoint family.

“We are now going well beyond the 135-year-old walls of this building,” she said.

Another big shift has been the move from fee-for-service to value-based payments, a major change in how health care providers are paid.

“Under value-based arrangements, the reimbursement model incorporates incentives for health care providers to manage health care utilization and costs more effectively and — very importantly — to demonstrate achievement of key quality metrics,” she said.

“These arrangements have the potential to impact the health care cost curve, which has been a steadily increasing part of our economy for years, and to improve the care delivered to individuals and populations.

“Not every health care payer and not every health care system is moving forward with this significant shift, but UnityPoint Health is all-in because we think it represents the right thing to do.”

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Looking at the big picture, “I want to ensure St. Luke’s/UnityPoint is a good community partner to impact larger community issues from a health perspective,” she said.

“We think about if there are other ways to do more to improve community health. If we are more strategic, can we use more of our expertise to elevate key issues to improve community health?” she said, noting mental health care is one such issue.

Niermann seems to have her feet firmly planted on the ground. She was the first member of her family to earn a four-year college degree. Her first job at a hospital was in food service at her hometown hospital.

“I was getting things ready for the salad bar and taking patients their meals,” she said. “It was hot in that kitchen, but we worked hard every day. I felt like I was contributing to something important, that there was a deeper mission to my job and that became important to me in choosing my career.”

Today, those memories informs the work she does as the first female CEO for UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “Since 85 percent of our workforce is female, it makes a lot of sense to have women in key leadership roles.”

She pointed out that four of UnityPoint’s nine regions have female leadership.

“That’s a good quality of our system, and I’m really proud of that,” she said. “Everyone can and should have the opportunity to move into these positions.”

But Niermann sees the challenges, too.

“I do think women struggle with self-confidence. I know I have,” she said. “That can be a barrier, and I want other women to know they aren’t alone if they have struggled or doubted themselves. We are often our biggest critic. I try to recognize when I am doing it and still push myself to take some risks.”

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Reflecting on her months as CEO, Niermann said, “No day here is ever alike and that is part of the appeal. I do spend a lot of time in meetings, and I have about a dozen direct reports that I talk with regularly. I’m not out and about as much as I’d like, but hope to be able to do more of that in the weeks and months and years ahead.”

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