To passersby, it probably looked like two old friends chatting over breakfast; their regular routine of English muffins and oatmeal appearing without having to order, delivered to the same back table at the Harrison House Diner, in the Mullica Hill section of Harrison.
But those regular breakfast meetings between Chet Kaletkowski, president and CEO of South Jersey Healthcare, and Eileen Cardile, president and CEO of Underwood Memorial Hospital, were the starting ground for reshaping health care in southern New Jersey.
"I'm a Jersey boy … weekends always started in a diner with a great breakfast. In college, after a date, we'd always wind up at a diner for coffee," Kaletkowski said. "Diners, to me, are the natural fertile ground for having discussions with others."
The breakfast meetings led to a consolidation of Underwood into South Jersey, similar to how breakfast at the Sage Diner with Richard P. Miller turned into the formation of Virtua in 1998, by combining Kaletkowski's Memorial Health Alliance and Miller's West Jersey Health System.
Developing relationships that lead to better business is one of the hallmarks of Kaletkowski's legacy in the health care industry.
Miller said that he "had a great relationship with Chet during the short time that (we) worked together," before Miller took the reins of the combined system and Kaletkowski moved on to South Jersey.
"You don't get up one morning and say 'I think I'm going to merge,' " Cardile said. "This has been almost a three-year journey, and he's been consistently forthcoming, collaborative and focused on doing the right thing. That's not always found in every organization."
And while the casual nature of the diner discussions set the stage for hashing out the details, Kaletkowski is anything but casual about initiating the consolidations he's so good at. He doesn't want to stand still and wait for things happen, Cardile said; in meetings, it's apparent when it's time to move on, because Kaletkowski's leg will begin to bounce.
"He has that window of opportunity where you're going to keep his attention," Cardile said. "I picked that up very early."
Cardile also picked up early that Kaletkowski is "a life-long learner" who values intellectual talent. At South Jersey, that love of learning has translated into a pet project of sorts for Kaletkowski — building a graduate medical education program.
Just as he's seen waves of consolidation hit New Jersey during his 40 years in health care, Kaletkowski said he's seen waves of medical students who are trained in the state leave to practice elsewhere.
In July 2011, South Jersey began a full-scale medical residency program, focused mostly on getting primary care doctors trained at UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine to stay in Cumberland and Gloucester counties to practice. This past fall, South Jersey became a major clinical affiliate of the school, as well.
"He indicated to me that, prior to his retirement, he wanted to see this vision for graduate medical education unfold, and that is happening," said Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, dean of the School of Osteopathic Medicine.
"We have had a tremendous challenge to get medical residents and doctors to come here, in general," Kaletkowski said. "Cumberland is the poorest county in the state … by having residents here, they go 'Wow, this is really a great place to practice medicine.' "
Kaletkowski "has formulated a vision and implemented a plan partnering with us, with the full support of his board, to address this issue." Cavalieri said. "Personally, I credit Chet's vision for this to happen."
Cavalieri said both students and residents that come from his school express how much they enjoy learning and working at South Jersey, and that there is a general excitement for new opportunities that can be created as it is integrated into Rowan University.
Cavalieri said the growth of the graduate medical education program is "unprecedented anywhere else in the state of New Jersey, in terms of its breadth and scope."
By this summer, Kaletkowski hopes to have a total of 140 residents learning from South Jersey's physicians in the system's new resident center, built at the Regional Medical Center, in Vineland. It will be one of the larger GME programs in the state when fully realized.
Kaletkowski's own future is likely to be centered around higher education, too. When he retires in next few years — he was supposed to this March, but held off because of the consolidation — he wants to teach at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Fla.
After speaking to various student groups around the state, Kaletkowski said he realized he really enjoyed being asked tough questions by engaged young minds.
"It's a lot of fun … to me, it would be natural," Kaletkowski said. "As long as I don't have to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm not looking for empathy, but I have 40 years in the business. Let's do something a little different, but related."
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