AMSTERDAM — A veteran emergency room doctor took over as chief medical officer of St. Mary’s Healthcare on Monday and plans to share leadership at Montgomery County’s only hospital.
dr Craig van Roekens, 60, joined the hospital’s medical staff last September as the team’s emergency medical department manager, having worked in the same capacity at Glens Falls Hospital. In early 2022 he became Hospitalist Director at St. Mary’s.
He is now the successor to Dr. William Mayer, who has retired as CMO after a long tenure as a member of the St. Mary’s medical staff for the past eight years.
Van Roekens and his wife Patty live in Orange County and are parents to 21-year-old triplets.
He grew up in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the son of an IT manager and school literacy specialist. He hopes to embody the analytical skills of his father’s IT work and the compassion of his mother’s schoolwork, but the inspiration to become a doctor didn’t come from either.
Not even from the missionary work of his great-great-grandfather, a Belgian doctor, in Africa.
It came instead from his grandmother, a nurse, and her collection of medical drawings.
“She would bring home Frank Netter’s illustrations from all the drugs [salesmen] and I would see these at a young age,” said van Roekens. “She inspired me to become a doctor.”
As a young doctor, he emerged from Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Emergency Medicine Residency program into a medical community struggling with the HIV epidemic and adapting to the rise of the HMO model of health insurance.
Van Roekens then earned a master’s degree in business administration and public health from UC Berkeley.
In the decades since, he has served as the chief medical officer of a New York City physician group, but has worked in a nursing rather than an administrative role.
He will lead a team of more than 80 physicians at St. Mary’s Healthcare who average approximately 5,000 inpatient admissions and 90,000 outpatient visits per year.
On Tuesday, van Roekens spoke to this newspaper about his career and his new position. Some parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
You have obtained a degree in business administration after your medical training; Have you always aspired to a management position?
“One of my colleagues at Hopkins said, ‘Look, you need to learn about this, you need to learn about the business of medicine.’ And I decided to do an MBA and an MPH in a combined program. I’ve always wanted to offer healthcare at a greater level, but I also want to make sure that healthcare is focused on the patient and their needs and doesn’t leave out the people who provide the care. I think doctors should be leaders in healthcare and that goes with the whole team approach. But it can’t be the insurance companies that lead in healthcare, it can’t be the latest trend.”
As the CMO, will you continue to practice as a physician in any medical care role?
“That is a difficult question. We will see. It’s a demanding job and I want to make sure I give it the attention it deserves. I’ll be doing some clinical work over the next few months, but at some point I’ll have to move to a different environment. So I think I’ll have to give that up eventually, and it’s difficult for a doctor – that’s the most immediate and immensely rewarding thing to do to make a difference in saving someone’s life. But I want that to happen through my work to make it easier for other doctors and other nurses to do the same.”
Do you feel like you’re trading one type of stress for another?
“Stress is a good thing. Stress keeps me alive and running. So I like a bit of stress. Without stress, we cannot achieve change or improvement. I look for stress that we can use to create positive change. I’m sure there will be days that are more rewarding than others – that’s part of the territory.”
After working as a doctor for so long, is it harder to be judged on the work of others than on yourself?
“I do not believe that. I’m really happy when someone does something right on any level. We never want anyone to fail. There will be failures, that’s part of the human condition. Our job is to try to spot bugs, what we can do to improve them, how we can work together to solve some of those problems. COVID is a perfect example: every day, every week, we had a little change in some of the protocols when it first hit. We have learned from some of those initial missteps, and there are many people who are part of that learning curve, both state, agency, the people providing that care, and the families and patients that are affected.”
What lessons are you and the hospital taking from COVID, America’s worst public health crisis in a century?
“I think there are a few lessons. One is that collaboration is important. I had doctors working in different places, some I knew, some I didn’t, and we used all kinds of communication, live time, about hey, how do you guys handle that down town? There are many things that COVID has spawned, including hybrid work, including telemedicine, and that has given us many opportunities to continue some of those efforts. Definitely humility is a lesson for sure, because just when we think we understand everything, things have changed a bit. As a leader I don’t want to be dictatorial, I want us to be inquiring and thoughtful about how we solve problems. I think that’s important.”