Kate Becker has two rows of colorful Tibetan prayer flags pinned to the wall above her desk – a reminder, perhaps, that she might need a little supernatural intervention from time to time in her new job. “Every time the wind blows a little prayer goes up,” she says with smile.
As the new CEO at UNM Hospital, a 500-plus bed institution with a Level I trauma center that serves more than 200,000 New Mexicans each year, Becker knows she has inherited all the complexities that come with running a busy public teaching hospital.
“Some of the challenges here I think are common to everyone in health care today, and some are unique,” Becker says. “There's continued downward pressure on reimbursement and the need to provide high-quality care at lower cost.”
Unique to New Mexico, she says, “are the challenges of recruiting specialty and subspecialty providers in a market where there just isn’t as much volume. The other thing that’s unique about here is that because we have so many different stakeholders who so generously support us, our mission encompasses the entire spectrum of care – for the whole state.”
Becker is accustomed to meeting challenges in health care management. Until earlier this year she was president of SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, a teaching hospital with a Level I trauma center that serves patients throughout eastern Missouri and southern Illinois.
There, she was three-fifths of the way through overseeing the construction of a new hospital. UNM is meanwhile several years along in the process of planning the construction of a modern medical facility.
“I have the benefit of understanding some of the challenges that are associated with that,” she says. “Here I think our challenge is that we have to find a way to provide care in a more modern setting. There’s things that we spend a lot of time and energy repairing and replacing just to make sure they’re functional. It would definitely improve our patient and provider experience if they didn’t have those distractions.”
Becker and her husband, Howard, a retired attorney, were ready for the move to New Mexico. “My husband and I had always talked about moving West when the kids grew up,” she said.
Becker grew up in St. Louis, but has lifelong familiarity with New Mexico. Her father was an Albuquerque native, and her grandparents owned a pharmacy on Wyoming Boulevard. There were frequent family trips out West when she was growing up.
“The thing that impressed me most about coming here when I was young was the mountains, because we don’t have mountains like that in Missouri,” Becker says. “It’s always been to me an exotic place, with different geography and different smells.”
Becker graduated college at St. Louis University, then earned her JD at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. She later practice medical malpractice defense with law firms in Beaumont and Houston, Texas.
She later returned to St. Louis University as the medical school’s lawyer awhile completing a master's of public health with a focus on health policy. Becker later became CEO of SLUCare, the physician practice group.
Becker’s next move came as president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights, Mo. She served as interim president of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital before taking the reins at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.
How does she account for her string of successes as a hospital administrator?
“The one good thing about lawyering is you really learn how to ask questions,” she says. “Depending on what it is you’re doing, you go very deep. I was very lucky to work with people who were willing to teach me and show me how everything worked.”