Children's chief plans for big move

Christopher Gessner grew up in Ligonier, one of three sons of a pediatrician who routinely answered the home phone when patients and hospital staff were looking for their father in the era before pagers and cell phones. He didn't follow his father's path into practicing medicine but studied business and health administration, which led to a series of jobs at hospitals and health-care organizations around Pennsylvania. He joined Children's Hospital in 2001 and in April was named president of the institution, which has about 360 doctors, 220 pediatric residents and fellows, and between 2,500 and 2,800 nurses, pharmacists, therapists and other employees. Mr. Gessner's role includes overseeing Children's relocation next year to a $625 million facility in Lawrenceville.

Q: How complex is the plan to move patients, staff and equipment from Oakland buildings to the new hospital on May 2, 2009?

A: That is the date for the patient move. But a series of moves will happen between now and then. It's a whole campus that's moving, not just the hospital. The Rangos Research Center will be done first and will move in November. Administrative offices will start to move after research is in. Then physicians and faculty and administration. The hospital should be complete by Christmas. Then we're going to spend from January to April orienting our staff to the new environment. It's a pretty dramatic change.

Christopher Gessner
  • Job: President, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Ligonier; resides in Pine.
  • Education: Bachelor's, economics, College of William and Mary, 1989; master of business administration and master of health administration, University of Pittsburgh, 1991.
  • Career: 1991-92: administrative resident, West Penn Hospital; 1992-97: variety of jobs including assistant vice president and assistant to the chief executive, Guthrie Healthcare System, Sayre, Bradford County; 1997: vice president, business development, Geisinger Healthcare System and Penn State Geisinger Health System, Harrisburg; 1998-2001: vice president of health services administration, Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh; 2001-03: executive director of Children's Community Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh; 2003-05: vice president, ambulatory services, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and president, CCP; 2005-08: chief operating officer, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and president, CCP; April 2008-present: president, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Q: How will the patients be transported?

A: They will go mostly in ambulances. The week before we will start to limit and restrict elective admissions to the hospital. We will try to reduce our census here to somewhere between 125 and 150 kids. It typically runs around 225. We're going to triage the remaining patients into three different groups depending on what type of equipment the patient needs to move. For example, patients at the highest level of severity may have a physician move with them. We've done a computer simulation of moving these patients to see how long it will actually take. We can adjust if we need more stretchers, more nurses or more ambulances to try and accomplish it in about 12 hours. Many of these patients are going to be very sick. It does need to be carefully planned.

Q: Did you follow models of other hospital moves?


Yes. Children's Hospital of Denver and Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital. Vanderbilt was a short move kind of across campus but Denver moved about eight miles and we're going to move two to three miles. We're spending time at Los Angeles Children's because they're about to move. So we've done a lot of learning from our colleagues [around] the country.

Q: How will patient care improve in the new hospital?

A: Significantly in many ways. Ninety percent of the patient rooms are private which is a huge plus in terms of family satisfaction and from an infection control perspective. During our busy season (January to April) we lose around 10 to 15 beds a day because we have to block a bed when it's right next to an infectious patient. So we'll have 296 beds in the new hospital and we'll actually gain because most are private. We'll also have more critical care beds. The technology there is going to be a huge improvement. We want to be paperless when we move and in fact, the new hospital is designed to be paperless. We're about 85 percent complete on that journey ... and that makes a much safer, more efficient environment.

And there's a lot of new, cutting-edge equipment: multiple MRIs, a linear accelerator, a cardiac cath lab for cardiac procedure that meets all the standards of an operating room. Only a few children's hospitals have that. There are some new services for patients like meals on demand ... instead of meals all at one time. A lot of times kids feel sick in the morning and don't want to eat. Or we get late admissions. We take a tray up and it may sit there because [patients] aren't hungry. With on-demand, if somebody's not hungry at 6, [he doesn't] have to order dinner then. [He] can order it at 9 o'clock, and that's when the food comes up.

Q: Will patient families and visitors notice some differences?

A: There is a lot of family support space. Some of that comes from the private rooms: families can sleep there. But there is also more playroom capacity, a business center for families and multiple family sitting areas on each floor with a lot of natural light. From a way-finding perspective, it's also much improved. Here, I pretty much don't give directions. I take people where they need to go because there are too many turns to describe. Over there, we tried to design it so that with three or four quick directions, people could know where they're going.

Q: The price tag on the new facility has risen a few times since it was announced. Is it going to stay at $625 million?

A: Yes. I don't think it's gone up in a while.

Q: You were recently ranked 10th on U.S. News & World Report's list of top children's hospitals in America. How did you crack the top 10?


Our in-patient growth is tremendous, up about 30 percent in the last five years. Our outpatient growth is up about 40 percent in the last five years. And our number of trainees -- people who want to become pediatricians or become experts in pediatric subspecialties -- has also grown significantly. The other thing is the [U.S. News] survey has become more scientific. It used to be based totally on popularity. We have to submit data about quality of care, mortality rates, morbidity complication rates and we scored very well. Our perspective is that we've always been in the top 10. We are just now getting publicly noticed.

Q: How much contact do you have with patients and their care?


Probably more than what people would think. I'm very accessible. Every other week, I do patient safety rounds in the pediatric intensive care unit. And the administrative staff is each assigned a floor and goes there on a regular basis to ask about the environment and ways we can improve. We talk to the nurses, parents, patients or whoever is there. I also do environmental services rounds every other week. I'm looking at the cleanliness of the hospital. It gives me perspective I haven't had before. I have breakfast with a group of randomly picked nurses every other week; I have employee lunches with employees outside of nursing. It gives me some different perspective I would not get if I was just sitting here at my desk doing e-mail, attending meetings.

Q: Do you pick your father's brain about what it's like to be a pediatrician?

A: My father is semiretired and my youngest brother is an internist in North Carolina. I've kind of grown up believing that the physician is the customer of the hospital administrator. We have a lot of interesting discussions about health administration. Early in my career I had a lot of discussions with my dad to the point where my mom would kind of shut it off. My mom or my wife. But lately he and I don't talk as much about it because he's into fly-fishing and golf.

Q: Did you ever want to be a doctor?

A: I didn't when I was growing up. When I first came out of graduate school, sometimes I wished I was. I played football at the College of William and Mary for four years. All the lab courses for biology and science were late in the afternoon so I didn't take them because I was trying to make the football team. I gravitated more toward business and it worked out fine.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at or 412-263-1580. First Published June 15, 2008 4:00 AM


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