Back Story

Denise Crawford

President & CEO, Family Health Center
encore-magazine-back-story-denise-crawford-sept-2020
Denise Crawford, President & CEO, Family Health Center

Denise Crawford has come a long way from the “Blue Pad Team.” As a student at Western Michigan University, Crawford had the unenviable job of working the overnight shift at Borgess Medical Center (now Ascension Borgess Hospital)replacing the absorbent blue pads placed under incontinent patients.

“It was a job many, many college students had at Borgess, and we didn’t really have a formal job title so we called ourselves ‘The Blue Pad Team,’” Crawford says with a chuckle. “It was our job throughout the night. We would go and essentially check and change the pads for the patients, so that was my very first kind of foray into health care and it was, oh, so sexy.”

But it didn’t dissuade her from a career in health care. The Kalamazoo native, now 51, spent a majority of her career in the Borgess health care system, working up the ranks until she was the director of physician services and ambulatory care at Borgess Lee Hospital in Dowagiac. In 2009, ready for a new challenge, she took the helm of Family Health Center, which provides medical care for the low-income and minority populations of Kalamazoo County. Since then, Family Health Center has expanded to three facilities and two mobile units providing health and dental care for more than 43,000 patients annually.

How did you get where you are today?

I had an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work from WMU and had worked my way up in the behavioral unit at Borgess. I was 34 and ready for something else. I met with Pat Dyson, the president of the hospital at that time, and he asked, “What do you think is next for you?” I remember I looked around his office and said, “This is pretty nice.” He kind of chuckled and said, “Well, I plan on being here for a little bit longer, so please don't move in too soon.” That was his way of being nice to me, but it really gave me validation. At least in his mind, maybe I could do this, so we began talking about it.

He encouraged me to get an MBA (Master of Business Administration degree), which I did through the Executive MBA program at Notre Dame. And when I got my MBA and was ready to take on the world, Borgess sent me to Dowagiac to work. I initially thought, “Are you kidding me? You're punishing me. When are you going to invite me to the corporate office?”

Being in Dowagiac ended up being one of the most transformational aspects of my career. Because it was a small facility, I did things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I didn’t have a team of people — legal, facilities and maintenance, etc. — to help run things. It was just me. We built a new emergency room. We built a new health care facility. I ended up loving that community, the work that I did and its impact.

How did you end up at Family Health Center?

After several years in Dowagiac, I got a call from Family Health Center, and they were looking for a CEO. And I thought, “Well, that wasn't really where I was planning to go,” but my husband said, “Why don't you? This is what you wanted ever since you were in Pat Dyson's office. You talk about wanting to make a difference.” And I remember saying, “I'm not a miracle worker,” because I didn't know a whole lot about Family Health Center, but I knew it wasn't gorgeous. But the job really gravitated to my heart. I wanted to do it for the community.

How has Family Health Center grown since you’ve become CEO?

I came in 2009, and it was the perfect time because the recession hit in 2008 and Obama had just been elected president. The government was trying to stimulate the economy and create health care reform and grant money was available specifically for federal qualified health centers.

We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we built a facility that would house KCMS-MSU’s (Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies-Michigan State University’s) medical residency program, where they could deliver care and the patients would have access to care?” We put together a 300-page grant application in a month, got support letters from Borgess and Bronson hospitals, and we were awarded $10.3 million.

We expanded the Paterson Street facility by 75,000 square feet, going from 16 exam rooms to 104. We got another grant to build a new facility on Alcott Street to provide services to the south side of Kalamazoo, which opened in 2017. We have a third facility on Burdick Street and two mobile units that provide health and dental care.

Describe the role FHC has played in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The one thing that became clear during the pandemic was that people needed testing and needed to have access to tests for the virus. With the exception of the two emergency rooms or urgent care facilities, most health care facilities had shut down, so we created drive-in testing sites and were able to test over 5,000 individuals. Our commitment was to serve everyone in the community, so we had sites in underserved communities and in more affluent communities. We went wherever the need was.

Interview by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity

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A key player in COVID-19 testing

"The one thing that became clear during the pandemic was that people needed testing and needed to have access to tests for the virus. With the exception of the two emergency rooms or urgent care facilities, most health care facilities had shut down, so we created drive-in testing sites and were able to test over 5,000 individuals. Our commitment was to serve everyone in the community, so we had sites in underserved communities and in more affluent communities. We went wherever the need was."

—Denise Crawford, Family Health Center