Thursday, February 18th, 2021

New health care CEO named

By William Kincaid

Cynthia Berning was named president and CEO of Grand Lake Health System.. . .

ST. MARYS - With more than 20 years of experience in health care management, Cynthia Berning made the leap to the top of the administrative pecking order at Grand Lake Health System in December when she was named president and chief executive officer.
In a wide-raging interview, Berning, a lifelong area resident who lives in Maria Stein with her husband, Chris, spoke about her transition to her new role, the health system's emphasis on primary care and the ways in which officials quickly adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Berning had served as interim president/CEO since the retirement of Kevin Harlan on Sept. 4 and before then as vice president of operations.
Prior to announcing his retirement, Harlan had convinced Berning to take a serious look at throwing her hat in the ring to be his successor.
"It was one of those situations where somebody saw something in me before I saw it in myself. I had a wonderful mentor in our previous CEO, Kevin Harlan," Berning said.
She said she had gained crucial experience and had been exposed to multiple scenarios while working alongside Harlan.
Taking over decision making and strategic planning for the health system is an enormous commitment and responsibility, Berning said.
"The things that keep me up at night are so many people that rely on your decision-making skills," she said of the system's 669 employees. "It's not something that I took lightly."
Berning credited an extraordinary senior management team for apprising her of activities and trends within the system that encompasses numerous services offered in Wapakoneta, St. Marys, Celina and Minster.
"We don't make decisions in a bubble. We never have. It is very much a team effort. We look at things together as a team and make decisions as a team, and in that I find a lot of comfort," she said. "They bring me in when needed to make decisions. Obviously, we've got a lot going on in terms of day-to-day planning with the pandemic which has kept us very busy over the last year."
Asked what she brings to the table, Berning noted that much of her initial focus is on expanding the culture fostered by her predecessor that positioned the health system for success.
"As I'm learning this role, my main focus would be to continue to ensure that that does continue into the future, to build upon that," she said.
Her gender also brings a new perspective to administrative leadership.
"Health care is very much about caring, the patient experience, and I think as a female, as a mother, as a grandmother, I can provide some of that perspective in a little bit different manner than maybe a male CEO could do," she said.
As a rural health care provider, Grand Lake Health Systems' bread and butter is its primary care.
"We want to be the best we can be at the services that we provide but still retain those relationships with higher levels of care," Berning said.
All the while, health officials keep their eyes on services that draw people out of the area and determine whether they would be a good fit for Grand Lake Health System. For instance, several years ago officials, responding to a community need, opened a geriatric psychiatric center. It has 12 beds that are often full, Berning said.  
"No. 1, we need to provide the best primary care-type of services, but also we look for those niches of things like the gero psych unit that we can provide that we know that need is out there," she said.
Touching upon the health system's current growth, Berning said a new medical office building is poised to open soon across the street from the hospital's main campus. It will contain suites that will be the new homes of several practices and afford space for future growth.
Officials in March plan to reopen the transitional care unit where patients go after surgery. It had been turned into an ad-hoc COVID-19 patient area, Berning said.
"Very early on in the beginning of the pandemic we were working off of models provided by the state that looked very scary. We had to plan for what we thought was going to be a very large influx of patients that were going to need very critical care," Berning said. "Thankfully that did not happen. It was more of a gradual climb in COVID patients needing care."
Hospital COVID-19 cases reached their height in November. Having only four rooms with the level of ventilation necessary to care for COVID-19 patients, officials were forced to improvise.
"With that surge we had to quickly prepare for larger numbers," she said. "So we temporarily closed our transitional care unit and converted those to medical beds."
The temporary arrangement opened up an entire floor for COVID-19 patients.
"We were full-on several days so it was a good move to do that," Berning said. "Being able to kind of isolate them all on one floor is the plan that we went with, and it worked well for us."
For the past several weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been minimal with just a few patients. Furthermore, the hospital has had only a few cases of flu, likely due to the masking, heightened sanitation and social distancing that accompanied the pandemic.
Like other health professionals, Berning has no crystal ball. But she foresees the return of some sort of normalcy once COVID-19 vaccinations pick up. The hospital has administered more than 1,000 vaccinations and has 1,400 on a waiting list.
That is very promising to me that there is that desire in the community to get vaccinated, because I really do feel that that is our ticket to normalcy," she said. "For every vaccination we're one step closer to normalcy."
Tracing the path that led to the top administrative position at Grand Lake Health System, Berning said she grew up in Chickasaw and graduated from Marion Local High School in 1990.
"I actually am a bean counter by training," she said.
Upon graduating from Wright State University, Berning launched her career in public accounting with Siefring and Associates in St. Marys. The long hours of tax season proved taxing on the mother of three young children, compelling her to seek more consistent hours of employment.
"At the time the CFO here at the hospital was looking for an accounting manager and I applied and I got the job and the rest was history," she said.
Her duties increased as the years went by. Berning said she had the opportunity to spread her wings when offered the position of Mercer Health chief financial officer in 2008.
"The most important thing I came away with from that experience was how extremely lucky we are in this community to have two wonderful, wonderful health care facilities right in our backyard," she said. "I can't tell you how impressed I am with the people that work in both health care facilities."
In 2011, she returned to Grand Lake Health System where she has worked since.
"We've never left (the area). I commuted to college from the area, and we raised our children in this area. Our three grandchildren live in this area," she said. "There's just something really special about this community. We just look out for each other. We know our neighbors. We take care of each other."
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