AMSTERDAM — A veteran emergency department doctor took over Monday as chief medical officer of St. Mary’s Healthcare, with plans for a collaborative leadership role at Montgomery County’s only hospital.
Dr. Craig van Roekens, 60, joined the hospital’s medical staff this past September as team health emergency department director after working in the same role at Glens Falls Hospital. In early 2022, he became hospitalist director at St. Mary’s.
He now succeeds Dr. William Mayer, who retired after a lengthy tenure as a member of the St. Mary’s medical staff, the last eight years as CMO.
Van Roekens and his wife, Patty, live in Orange County and are the parents of 21-year-old triplets.
He grew up in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the son of an information technology manager and school reading specialist. He hopes that he embodies the analytic skills of his father’s IT work and the compassion of his mother’s school work, but the inspiration to become a physician didn’t come from either of them.
Nor did it come from the missionary work in Africa performed by his great-great grandfather, a Belgian doctor.
It came instead from his grandmother, a nurse, and her collection of medical drawings.
“She would bring home the Frank Netter illustrations from all the drug [salesmen] and I would see those at a young age,” van Roekens said. “She inspired me to become a physician.”
As a young doctor, he emerged from the Johns Hopkins Hospital Emergency Medicine Residency program into a medical community struggling with the HIV epidemic and adjusting to the rise of the HMO model of health insurance.
Van Roekens subsequently earned masters degrees in business administration and public health from UC Berkeley.
In the decades since, he served as chief medical officer of a New York City physician group but has worked more often in a caregiving than administrative role.
He will be leading a staff of more than 80 doctors at St. Mary’s Healthcare, which averages about 5,000 inpatient admissions and 90,000 outpatient visits per year.
On Tuesday, van Roekens discussed his career and his new position with this newspaper. The interview has been edited in places for clarity and brevity.
You earned managerial degrees after your medical education; had you always aspired to a managerial role?
“One of my colleagues at Hopkins said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to learn about this, you’ve got to learn about the business of medicine.’ And I decided to pursue an MBA and an MPH in a combined program. I’ve always wanted to deliver healthcare at a larger level but I also want to make sure health care stays focused on the patient and what their needs are, and not leave out the people that are providing the care. I think that physicians should be leading healthcare and that comes in concert with the whole team approach. But it can’t be the insurance companies that are leading healthcare, it can’t be the latest trend.”
Will you continue to work in some medical caregiving capacity as a doctor now that you are CMO?
“That’s a tough one. We’ll see. This is a demanding job and I want to make sure I devote all the attention that’s needed to it. Going forward over the next few months I’ll still be working some clinically, but at some point, I’m going to need to move to a different setting. So I think ultimately I’m going to have to give that up, and it’s difficult for a physician — that is most immediately and immensely gratifying to make a difference to save somebody’s life. But I’d like to have that occur through the work that I do to make it easier for other doctors, other nurses to do that same thing.”
Do you feel like you are trading one type of stress for another?
“Stress is a good thing. Stress is what keeps me alive and going. So I kind of like a little stress. Without any stress we don’t get change or improvement. I’m looking for stress that we can effect positive change with. I’m sure there’ll be days that are more rewarding than others — that comes with the territory.”
Is it harder to be judged by the work of others rather than yourself after working so long as a doctor?
“I don’t think so. I actually take a great deal of pleasure when somebody does something right at any level. We never want anyone to fail. There will be failures, it’s part of the human condition. Our job is to try to recognize when there are failures, what we can do to improve it, how we can work together to solve some of those things. COVID is a perfect example: Every day, every week we had a slight change in some of the protocols when it first occurred. We’ve learned from some of those initial missteps, and there are many people who are part of that learning curve, both governmental, regulatory, the people delivering that care and the families and patients that were affected by it.”
What lessons do you and the hospital draw from COVID, the worst public health crisis in a century in America?
“I think there are a couple lessons. One is collaboration is important. I had physicians working in different places, some that I knew, some I didn’t, and we were using all kinds of communication, live-time, about hey, how are you handling that down in the city? There are a lot of things that COVID brought about, including hybrid work, including telemedicine, and that gave us a lot of opportunity to continue some of those efforts. Definitely humility is certainly one lesson, because just when we think that we understand everything, things changed a little bit. As a leader I don’t want to be dictatorial, I want us to be exploratory and thoughtful in terms of how we solve problems. I think that’s important.”