It's just his third day on the job, but already Kevin Nokels knows what he needs to do to succeed as the new CEO of St. Luke's: Ask questions.
"I want to learn as much as I can about St. Luke's, I want to learn about the medical community, who the partners are out there," he said. "How do we work together to provide the care that's needed, the services that are needed?"
He arrives at a crucial time for St. Luke's — which is spending $249 million in campus upgrades over the next several years — and for the health care industry in general.
"We're in a very volatile, uncertain and ambiguous time right now in health care," Nokels said. "That gives you opportunity."
The Minnesota-born executive has held several leadership roles at health care organizations in Nebraska and was most recently president of CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center — Bergan Mercy in Omaha.
Nokels (pronounced nuk-culls) sat down with the News Tribune on Wednesday to talk about what brought him here, his vision for St. Luke's and what challenges and opportunities await. The interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.
News Tribune: What drew you to this job, and to St. Luke's?
Nokels: The No. 1 draw for myself and Dawn, my wife — we both grew up in north-central Minnesota — but we both love the Duluth area. We're avid outdoors people.
From the job opportunity, Duluth is a wonderful community with a vibrant independent health system. As I interviewed a lot of what I found very attractive was the people who work at St. Luke's and their passion for what they do.
News Tribune: How do you think St. Luke's, and the Duluth market in general, is different from what you've experienced?
Nokels: There's a lot of commonality in health care in any part of the country. It's undergoing a whole lot of change. And how do we change to provide care for the future? We know health care is too expensive. We have to work to reduce our costs for our consumers, for our employers, for our government. We also have to find a way to make health care even safer and have higher quality. So how do we do the right thing at the right time, the right place?
News Tribune: How do you view your relationship with Essentia Health?
Nokels: I think it's vital you have two strong health systems and have strong, local health care organizations. I don't believe that either one could go it alone, nor do I necessarily believe that the community would want that. There is a desire for choice.
In a community, a region this size, is there an opportunity for the health systems to collaborate? And how do we work together to bring talent into the community? When you look at the Medical District (a combined $1 billion in investment between St. Luke's and Essentia) that's going to be a very attractive opportunity for the organizations to recruit, and I think it is also going support and enhance economic development within the Twin Ports.
News Tribune: What do you see the next five to 10 years holding for St. Luke's?
Nokels: I believe you're going to see fewer and fewer people going into the hospital. It's going to be health care that's provided on an outpatient basis, meaning you will come and go, and health care will be provided remotely via telemedicine. It's going to be a different model, but what the Medical District brings to the community is a very vibrant place where health care can and will be provided.
News Tribune: With ongoing contract negotiations with nurses, what is your take on how that is going to be resolved?
Nokels: I fully trust that both teams will work as they've done successfully in the past to come to terms. Health care is very costly, and our number one expense is around our labor. We expect a fair and equitable wage, salary and benefits but also we have an obligation to our communities to continue to serve and provide care.
News Tribune: How would you describe your leadership style?
Nokels: I tend to be one who is visible, and transparent in sharing information. The more we can get individuals involved in making decisions, that helps make a better decision. I like to hear the opposing views. It's about taking the time to learn.
News Tribune: How did your past experience shape you and prepare you for this role?
Nokels: I think it has prepared me well. I have more than 30 years of health care experience starting with St. Cloud Hospital and moving to Omaha in 1992. We formed different partnerships, with health insurance companies, home care agencies, and I was involved in different acquisitions of hospitals, most recently Creighton University Medical Center.
There is a lot of listening that goes on. It has always been a team effort to provide health care, and we have to transform again how we provide care and move away from being inpatient-centric and more of an outpatient service.
News Tribune: Anything else?
Nokels: I am thrilled to be here, and I look forward to becoming part of the community, both at St. Luke's but also within the larger community. That's the number one attraction that brought me here.