It’s the first week on the job for Akron Children’s Hospital’s new CEO and president, Christopher Gessner.
One of his goals, Gessner said, is to expand the hospital’s behavioral and mental health services. Mental health concerns in children and teens, such as anxiety, are “exploding” due to the uncertainties and disruptions of daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said during a Wednesday news conference.
“I think it’s been building over time, but I think what we’ve seen … is just a tremendous demand in the emergency department and other areas for children that are coming in in a very anxious state or a concerned state,” Gessner said. “We’re already trying to figure out better ways to provide that care – how do we tap into virtual health services, and provide those in a way that are very convenient and high-quality level of care for patients through telehealth.”
Gessner took questions from the media to discuss his plans for the future of the hospital.
“I’ve been an admirer of Akron Children’s from afar for a long time,” Gessner said in the press conference. “I just couldn’t pass up that perfect opportunity for me to come back and provide my experience and skill set that I’ve developed over the years to this wonderful organization that has a great culture and such community support in Northeast Ohio.”
Gessner, who started the position on Oct. 18, said he has several other goals for the hospital system, but first on his agenda is to learn more about the Northeast Ohio region and the community the hospital system serves.
“I’m an outsider, but I know the importance of getting to know the communities we represent,” he said.
Gessner, a Pennsylvania native, is returning to the Midwest region after nearly two years as president of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital near Denver. Before that, he was the president of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for a decade.
Gessner is joining the hospital system in the midst of a major nationwide labor shortage in health care. Akron Children’s, like other hospitals across the country, is experiencing staff shortages across all departments, Gessner said.
Hospital officials are trying to combat this by figuring out better ways to recruit and retain staff, such as through advancement opportunities and support, Gessner said.
“I think health care leaders are going to be challenged to think about different ways of staffing and using technology and remote monitoring, and so forth, to make our staff more efficient and productive so that we can manage the care needs that are coming our way with … staffing levels that aren’t as high as [they have] been in the past,” he said.
Another priority, he said, is working out the logistics of the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine policy. Employees are not currently mandated to get the vaccine, but if they choose not to, they will be required to be tested for the virus every week, he said.
“We’re working to set up that testing program so that it’s convenient for all of our different employees,” Gessner said. “We’re just working through the logistics, and then we’re going to initiate the program in the near future.”
Gessner said he was not sure of the hospital system’s current employee vaccination rate.
In addition to staff vaccinations, hospital officials are also encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations for patients. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 soon, and Gessner said Akron Children’s is preparing to roll out these shots at the hospital’s pediatric offices and main campuses as well as school health clinics.
“Kids, even though they don’t get as sick as some adults … they can spread the disease, and I think it’s part of our duty here at Children’s to help parents understand the safety and efficacy of this and the importance of getting this vaccine,” Gessner said.
In a press release, Akron Children’s officials stated they hope Gessner will continue to lead the hospital through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic while also expanding the ways the hospital system delivers care.
“I’m honored to join the Akron Children’s team and work alongside the talented staff, physicians and advanced practice providers to deliver world-class care to the children of Northeast Ohio and beyond. The hospital is clearly part of the fabric of the many communities it serves, and I look forward to building on that strong sense of community engagement,” Gessner said in the release.
Gessner is taking the reins from Grace Wakulchik, who served as president since 2018. Wakulchik is retiring after working nearly 30 years at the hospital system – starting out as a registered nurse and working her way up through administrative roles before eventually becoming president and CEO.
“It’s been an honor to lead Akron Children’s because of the special culture that has preceded me and will continue on because it’s in the DNA of our organization. Every employee here daily makes a difference in the lives of children and families,” Wakulchik said in the release.
Akron Children’s has two main campuses, 35 pediatrician offices, 50 primary and specialty care centers and four urgent cares across several counties in the region.
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