Tina Freese Decker was a pre-medical student in college when she switched her career goals to health care administration.

“I always wanted to be in health care because I wanted to help others,” she said. “But I felt my skill set was better suited to a population perspective—helping the physicians and others provide the exceptional care that they do, so we can impact the population for generations to come.”

Now, she is ready to bring that skill set—and the experience gained in the past 16 years—to a new role.

The Spectrum Health System Board of Directors has appointed Freese Decker to Spectrum Health’s next president and chief executive officer.

When she assumes her new responsibilities Sept. 1, 2018, she will lead a nonprofit health system comprising 12 hospitals, including Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and 3,600 physicians and advanced practice providers, including 1,500 members of Spectrum Health Medical Group.

The health system also includes Priority Health, a health plan that served 996,000 members in 2017. And with 25,000 employees, Spectrum Health is West Michigan’s largest employer.

Freese Decker, the executive vice president and chief operating officer, will succeed Richard C. Breon, who plans to step down Aug. 31 after 18 years as CEO.

Dick DeVos, chairman of the Spectrum Health System Board of Directors, praised Freese Decker as “a true health care visionary” with a strong reputation for forward-thinking strategies, sound business acumen and a unique depth and breadth of leadership roles in operations and strategy.

Freese Decker, who has worked for Spectrum Health for 16 years, said she was honored by the appointment.

“I was exhilarated and humbled at the same time,” she said. “I am very pleased that I can take the helm for Spectrum Health and lead with our physicians, our team members and our community members to take Spectrum Health to the next level.”

Challenges and opportunities

Freese Decker steps into the role of Spectrum Health CEO at a time of great change and challenges, politically and economically, in the American health care landscape.

“I’m not daunted by the challenges ahead of us,” she said. “I am emboldened to move forward. I see the opportunities that are ahead of us to transform our organization and be more patient-, member- and consumer-centric, to figure out how to reduce the cost of health care and to embrace all those opportunities and possibilities that come with change.”

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Freese Decker traces her approach to health care to her academic days. She followed the advice of her professors and pursued a dual master’s degree at the University of Iowa—combining health care administration with industrial engineering.

“I was really interested in how we can impact the care and the coverage from a global perspective,” she said. “I thought there would be many ways to improve the efficiencies, reduce the cost and reduce the potential for error, which is where industrial engineering comes in.

“At the time I graduated, I don’t think there were as many process improvement initiatives in health care as there are today. I’ve seen this huge growth in an efficiency and effectiveness focus, which has been very helpful for all organizations to embrace. ”

She also has an undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in finance. That, too, has proved valuable.

“It’s absolutely important to have a finance and business base to understand what’s going on, especially with all the changes in health care,” she said.

A sense of curiosity

In 2002, Freese Decker came to Spectrum Health for a postgraduate fellowship in health care administration. In 2003, she became the director of system strategic planning and development.

In her 16 years at Spectrum Health, she has served in a variety of roles―as executive director of the Spectrum Health Regional Hospital Network, president of Spectrum Health United and Kelsey Hospitals, senior vice president, chief strategy officer, and president of the Spectrum Health Hospital Group.

In 2017, she became the executive vice president and chief operating officer.

In all those roles, she has drawn on an innate sense of curiosity to better understand the challenges and opportunities before her.

“I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “I am a collaborative person and I listen, because I really want to understand everything.”

Just as physicians do “rounds” visiting patients in the hospital, she does rounds visiting Spectrum Health campuses, meeting with providers and patients.

“I like to talk to our team members, our physicians and our caregivers. I also like to talk to our patients,” she said. “I ask them how it’s going, what we can do better and whom we can recognize for great things.”

Those interactions help guide her work developing strategies to improve the delivery and accessibility of health care.

She credited Breon with providing guidance over the years.

“Rick has been a wonderful leader, very strategic, very loyal. He’s been a good mentor,” she said. “I learned a lot from him.”

As she steps into the role of CEO, she plans to bring a collaborative leadership style.

“I like to seek input, I like to get everyone around before we make a decision to know what we are going to do,” she said. “I have no problem making the decision. But I believe it’s important to get others engaged in the process, to develop that buy-in early on.

“In health care, you can’t do it all yourself. You have to have partners.”

She has also worked with national and regional organizations and recruited people from outside Spectrum Health to ensure that the organization had the benefit of diverse perspectives of thought and experience.

In her years and various roles at Spectrum Health, she developed a deep appreciation for the care provided and the impact on the community.

“I love this organization. I love West Michigan,” she said. “I love the people working here. I am so proud of our physicians and caregivers and team members. I think they are fantastic. It is a privilege to lead them in this new role.”

‘Fresh energy and excitement’

The Spectrum Health System Board of Directors chose Freese Decker after an extensive national search that began last fall and drew on input from a search firm, community and business leaders, staff, physicians and board members, DeVos said. About 60 people were involved in interviewing the three finalists about their experience and vision for the future.

Factors that elevated Freese Decker to the top included her experience across the Spectrum Health system, her vision for health care in West Michigan and her understanding and engagement with the community.

“Spectrum Health is strong and positioned well for the future thanks to Rick Breon’s exceptional leadership,” DeVos said.

Freese Decker will bring a fresh perspective, he added.

“She will bring a different management style from a different generation,” he said. “This is very much a transition to a new leader. The board anticipates she will bring as much fresh energy and excitement and vision to Spectrum Health as if we had selected an outside candidate.”

Married to Jay Decker and the mother of two children, Freese Decker has become deeply involved with West Michigan community organizations.

She serves on the board of directors of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, Fifth Third Bank Western Michigan, Michigan Health and Hospital Association, Michigan State University and Spectrum Health Alliance, and The Economic Club of Grand Rapids. She was formerly the Michigan and NW Ohio regent for the American College of Healthcare Executives.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss praised Freese Decker for her involvement in the racial equity initiative that seeks to eliminate racial disparities in health outcomes in Grand Rapids.

“I think she’s an excellent choice (as CEO),” Bliss added. “She is brilliant. She has the expertise. And more than that, she has a heart for the work.”

At Spectrum Health, Freese Decker’s accomplishments include:

  • Implementing a $300 million transformation of the care model, including Epic installation
  • Redefining efficiency in operations across 12 hospitals and nearly 200 service sites
  • Elevating employee and member value with an integrated approach of Spectrum Health’s business entities: Priority Health, Medical Group and Hospital Group
  • Leading culture change by encouraging leaders and employees to embrace a spirit of curiosity, pursue innovation and trust they are supported
  • Championing virtual medicine strategy and implementation of the Spectrum Health app systemwide
  • Forming partnerships with community members to address health factors and cost

Her honors include: Modern Healthcare’s 2018 Top 25 COOs in Health Care, Managed Healthcare Executive’s 2018 Emerging Leaders, Crain’s Detroit Business Notable Women in Healthcare 2018, Crain’s Detroit Business 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan 2016, Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan 2014, 2016, 2018, and American College of Healthcare Executives Robert S. Hudgens Memorial Award for Young Healthcare Executive of the Year 2013.