‘The people are what make the difference’

FD native David Stark reflects on his career in hospital administration

The search for qualified health care professionals is a constant challenge that extends from rural hospitals in the Fort Dodge area to urban hospitals in Des Moines.

But it’s a challenge David Stark, president and CEO of UnityPoint Health — Des Moines, and Fort Dodge native, embraces.

And he said offering flexible schedules and a culture of appreciation for employees makes a considerable difference.

“The unemployment rate is very low in the state,” Stark said. “It’s extremely low in the Des Moines region, so the competition for good people is a huge challenge.”

Stark, a 1990 graduate of St. Edmond High School, was named CEO of UnityPoint Health — Des Moines in July of 2018. He’s worked for the UnityPoint organization for 23 years.

In terms of schedule flexibility, Stark said that has been a change for the better.

“Many years ago it used to be you had to work these shifts, here’s the time and there was really no working around it,” Stark said. “We have done a lot more part time and flexibility in scheduling. Someone who just works nights, just works days, or just works weekends, or can work different shifts. We have become much more flexible, which I think is attractive, particularly for younger people who maybe have families and are trying to work through child care. That has really helped us.”

Another key to attracting employees is creating a positive environment.

“That’s a big deal,” Stark said. “A place where people feel really good coming to work. Their contributions are valued, they are fairly compensated, and they have opportunity to grow. We invest in them — it’s a culture of appreciation. I think that’s a differentiator for us. That people will come work in our organization because of that factor, not that we are the highest paid or have the best benefits, those are all important, but our culture is another real important piece that we have focused on the past number of years.”

Before entering the field of hospital administration, Stark held a number of jobs growing up in Fort Dodge, including newspaper carrier for The Messenger, magazine salesman, and during his college years — a mover for White Transfer and Storage.

Stark lived near Seventh Avenue North, not far from the downtown area.

“I had a variety of different jobs that had me all over town,” he said. “I rode my bike all around the different neighborhoods and businesses.”

Stark said he appreciates the environment he grew up in.

“I was able to be involved in many things in the community,” he said. “My schooling and family connection has made a huge difference, and the education I received growing up in Fort Dodge has served me well and I remember my roots very fondly.”

Stark would go on to earn his Bachelor of Business Administration from Iowa State University. He holds a Master of Arts in health care administration from the University of Iowa.

His interest in hospital administration started in Fort Dodge.

“One of the longest serving CEOs of Trinity there, Tom Tibbitts, was a mentor of mine and was one of the reasons I had an interest in the profession,” Stark said. “And my older sister Julie, who is in the field now, was the other big reason.”

He added, “I saw the impact that they were able to make on a community’s health and people’s lives through what the hospital did and does. Their role in that — that really struck me as something that was very mission-focused and very impactful. I thought I had comparable interests and skills. The difference they were making, I wanted to do the same thing, and really saw that as an attractive role.”

Stark’s first job in a hospital was as an intern at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines in the 1990s.

There, he attended meetings and shadowed leaders of the hospital.

“Experiences from the boiler room to the birthing center and everything in between,” he said. “It was a broad exposure is what I got that summer.”

Since then, he has held multiple positions through UnityPoint, including chief operating officer at Iowa Lutheran Hospital, president and COO for Blank Children’s Hospital, and executive vice president and COO for UnityPoint Health – Des Moines.

Serving as president and CEO has allowed Stark to work with other administrators in the state.

“I get greater chance to work with our other CEOs in our region, including the newly appointed CEO in Fort Dodge, Leah Glasgo,” he said. “So I have a great opportunity to work across our whole system as well as still being in the Des Moines region. It’s a great organization and we are taking our challenges head-on. I’ve really been blessed to have this opportunity.”

Glasgo began her duties in Fort Dodge in January.

One particular trend in health care has been the focus on total wellness.

“The focus on wellness and taking care of people’s total wellness, not just when they are sick,” Stark said. “That’s a big shift for our industry. Medicaid managed care in the state. What happens with Blue Cross, with Medicare.”

He added, “Trinity in Fort Dodge is a great example. They were one of the rural pilot sites for Medicare demonstration project a few years ago. And it’s all around what we can do to provide better value, not just provide more services, but the right services in the right place at the right cost. That’s a big shift for us and a big challenge.”

In 2012, Trinity Regional Medical Center became a pilot site for a redesign of the health care delivery system to improve its flexibility to serve the full-range of patient needs.

TRMC and what was then named the Trimark Physicians Group were selected to participate in the federal government’s Pioneer Accountable Care Organization initiative. The local project was one of only 32 such pilots nationally. Importantly, it was one of just two that were focused on health care in a rural setting.

In January 2016, according to information provided by the medical center, UnityPoint Health Partners, the ACO of UnityPoint Health, was selected to participate in the new accountable care organization approach implemented by CMS called the Next Generation ACO Model. This next-stage endeavor builds on the experience gained from the Pioneer ACO Model.

Throughout his years of work in a hospital setting, Stark has witnessed a number of changes. Some of the biggest have related to technology.

“When I first started we didn’t have electronic medical records, robotic surgery, or a 256-slice CT scanner,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of the technological innovations that exist today. That has been transformative to our industry and our organization.”

He added, “We are much better about how we do diagnosis and treatment with the tools, whether that’s genetic testing, whether that’s some of the pharmaceuticals we have now that didn’t exist 23 years ago. Our ability to treat disease and treat conditions is far superior to what it was back then.”

The one constant, according to Stark, has been the impact that people have on the health care industry.

“The piece that hasn’t changed a bit is that hospitals, health systems, health care organizations are very people driven,” he said. “That hasn’t changed a bit. So while we have technology, the people are what make that difference when the patient is in that bed or in that emergency room or ready to deliver a baby, it’s the people that are surrounding that and the team concept that I fell in love with is still as powerful today as it was then. The technology has all been great, but what I expected coming in on the people side is absolutely still true today.”