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Norwegian American CEO watches his health along with his hospital’s


By Tara García Mathewson
When José Sánchez took over as CEO of Norwegian American Hospital in 2010, he encountered an organization that was on the edge of a precipice. The hospital was fragmented, it had unresolved issues with regulatory agencies and it had perception problems within the Humboldt Park community. Financially, it was nearing bankruptcy.
Under Sánchez’s leadership, Norwegian American has been in the black for every one of the last five years. It has repaired many of the problems that were plaguing its operations and inspired new levels of confidence among area doctors, increasing referrals and growing its provider network.
Beyond growing confidence among area doctors, Sánchez sees greater trust from local residents, too. When he arrived, the emergency room had about 24,000 visits per year. Now it averages 31,000, which has helped its financial bottom line as well. The hospital has increased its cardiology services, expanded the oncology department and grown its gastrointestinal program.
In his sixth year, Sánchez still has big plans for the future of Norwegian American. He wants to create a training program for family residents so the hospital can create the next generation of doctors interested in practicing within the community. He is also beginning a renovation of the first floors of the hospital to help community members feel more welcome and respected in the space.
Long-term, Sánchez has his sights on a wellness center. It will focus on prevention, offering opportunities for exercise with a gym, a swimming pool and an indoor track. He also wants to host cooking classes to teach healthy eating along with the importance of fitness.
And, importantly, Sánchez wants to continue forging new relationships with other stakeholders in the Humboldt Park community.
“No one single entity is going to be able to make a difference in Humboldt Park,” Sánchez said, “but it has to be all of us working collectively together to come up with innovative programs and collaborations, using technology and being creative to change the conditions of the people who live here.”
Turning around Norwegian American and developing a long-term vision for the role the hospital will play in the community has been more than a full-time job. Yet Sánchez has made sure to maintain his own health while he worries about the health of the institution he leads.
It is easy for company leaders to put their health second or even third after business, and sometimes family, obligations. But Sánchez has been disciplined about avoiding that mistake. He goes to sleep with his shorts, t-shirt and sneakers ready so the first thing he sees each morning are those three pieces, reminding him to exercise. He also meets a friend to go boxing every Saturday.
He advises others in high-stress, fast-paced business environments to set exercise routines that are convenient. Don’t plan to drive to a gym because it’s too easy to let other things get in the way.
“You also need to be mentally prepared to say ‘This is important to me,’ and then do it every day,” Sánchez said.
Having an exercise partner is also helpful because it means committing to someone else in addition to oneself.
Exercise is only part of it, however. Sánchez sees a doctor any time he has something wrong for even a few days in a row, just in case. And he doesn’t skip his annual check-ups or routine screenings. These are the things that can prevent early death from undiagnosed illnesses.
While breast cancer is not more prevalent among Latinas than white women, the mortality rate is higher, meaning Latinas are less likely to get regular mammograms and breast screenings. Sánchez says mortality rates are also high for Latinos with cardiovascular diseases and cancer of the liver.
All of those screenings, in addition to tests for colon and prostate cancer, are all available at Norwegian American. Diabetes screenings are, too, as Humboldt Park has higher rates of this disease than Chicago as a whole. The hospital’s wound care center is one of the best in the city and one of its centers of excellence, treating patients with wounds that result from their diabetes.
As the financial health of Norwegian American continues its upward rise, Sánchez hopes the health of the Latino community and the new arrivals in Humboldt Park can rise with it.