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CEO embraces her new challenge


At Visiting Nurse Service, Jane Shukitis runs a $60 million home care operation with 900 employees. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Blending her love of nursing with carefully honed business acumen, Jane Shukitis finds her new position as president and CEO of Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester and Monroe County and Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Service as the perfect capstone to a fulfilling career in health care.

“Health care, and home care in particular, is a very challenging business—even more so now during this time of payment and delivery system reform,” Shukitis says. “It takes every ounce of leadership skill to balance the required business and financial imperatives with the unwavering commitment to excellent care. We must have both to be successful, and it’s an exciting and invigorating challenge. I love a challenge.”

It has been less than two months since Shukitis took the reins at VNS, a Medicare-certified unit of the University of Rochester Medical Center with a $60 million annual budget and 900 employees who serve 13,000 patients each year. Services include home health care in a variety of programs designed to help people live independently.

The VNS service area covers seven counties: Monroe, Livingston, Ontario, Wyoming, Wayne, Seneca and Yates. In addition, its Meals on Wheels program serves more than 250,000 meals to 1,500 Monroe County residents annually through a workforce of 2,400 volunteers.

Long experience
Shukitis, who succeeded longtime VNS president and CEO Victoria Hines, previously was senior vice president of long-term and post-acute-care services with Rochester Regional Health System. Before the merger of Unity Health System and Rochester General Health System that created RRHS, she was in charge of Unity home care organizations.

While in her new post only a short time, Shukitis is clear about her top priority and her affinity for it.

“The best part is always about the people: the people we are entrusted to provide care to and the people who provide the care,” she says. “One of the most important parts of my job is providing the resources, environment and support the staff need to allow them to excel at providing the best possible care to our patients.”

Home health care is not easy from either side of the situation, she notes. As stressful as it is for the patient who fears the loss of independence, it is equally difficult for the visiting home care staff who must be adept at direct patient care, care management, family and patient education, and use of technology.

“I see my biggest challenge as providing a work environment that allows our staff—in every area—to use and advance their skills, to feel engaged and valued, and to have the support and resources they need each day to do and be their best,” Shukitis says. “In home care, this is even more difficult because much of our staff are out in the field working in very autonomous and often very isolated situations.”

Technology is providing solutions in many ways. Documentation is streamlined through electronic medical records, and remote patient monitoring with video conferencing can substitute for face-to-face visits.

“We do utilize some cutting-edge innovation such as telehealth,” says Shukitis, referring to the use of telecommunications to gather information and to deliver health services. “But in this challenging time of payment reform and transition, Visiting Nurse Service does not have the financial resources to invest in more technology advancements or expand existing technologies, yet we need the technology to gain more cost-effective care.”

Remote-care capability helps Shukitis manage the challenge of caring for an expanding elderly population with a shrinking workforce. Finding qualified home health care staffers can be a struggle.

“It’s more than a job. It’s a calling,” she says. “You have to have comfort with autonomy and a passion for caring for people. It’s not the age or the demographic but the heart of the person that makes a good home care worker.”

These are not high-paying positions, Shukitis notes, but the benefits package is good and the flexibility in scheduling is attractive. She thinks some of the best home care workers are those who have taken care of a loved one who was ill. Training for home health aides is a three-week certification course.

Most of the nurses who visit patients are registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees, although VNS employs RNs with associate degrees as well. Registered nurses in New York are not required to have a bachelor’s degree, but there is a move to change that. A “BSN in 10” bill before the state Legislature would require all nurses in New York to obtain a bachelor of nursing degree within 10 years in order to retain their license.

“I would never want to minimize the value of an associate degree, but this is one of the few professional fields in health care where we don’t require a bachelor’s degree and it puts us at the risk of devaluing our profession,” says Shukitis, who started her career as a nurse, working at Strong Memorial Hospital for three years and then at Park Ridge Hospital for 11 years. “Having all nurses be bachelor-prepared could add a level of credibility and respect, so I do agree we should move in that direction.

“My concern is that people with associate (degrees) should not lose their position,” she adds. “There should be a grandfathering built in to it.”

Personal qualities
Helping others reach their full potential is a trait one of her colleagues most admires about Shukitis. Amanda Teugeman worked with Shukitis at the Edna Tina Wilson Living Center, a nursing home affiliate of RRHS. She now is the administrator there, thanks in part to Shukitis, she says.

“I reported to Jane for two years, and she promoted me from assistant administrator to administrator,” Teugeman says. “She sees potential in people and she fosters their growth. She did that for me.”

Beyond the promotion, she credits Shukitis for fostering her personal growth.

“She always tried to find the light in what was happening. Everything wasn’t always going to be perfect,” Teugeman says. “My being younger and inexperienced, Jane shared something with me from her 30 years on the job. It helped me to see I would get through it. She had a strong sense of heart.”

Her personal touch is noted by another colleague, Ann Marie Cook, president and CEO of Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc. Cook and Shukitis have worked together on several aging service committees in the region over nearly two decades, and Shukitis serves on Lifespan’s board.

“Jane has a unique way of understanding all these systems in long-term care,” Cook says. “She asks the right questions. Her knowledge of aging is very valuable. She is such a value in our community.”

Cook also points to Shukitis’ tremendous efficiency—how she works long hours and still finds time to fit in her daily workout.

Her commitment to that balance stems from one of her proudest accomplishments outside of her work. Shukitis lost 150 pounds and has kept it off for 10 years.

“I am a Lifetime Weight Watchers member—and after a lifetime of struggling with being overweight I lost 150 pounds over a four-year period from 2001 to 2005,” she says. “In 2007, I was featured in a Weight Watchers success story book, and in a Guideposts magazine article. I now run five miles a day, seven days a week.”

The run takes her about an hour a day and in the winter she does it on her treadmill. Shukitis says the exercise routine is important to maintaining her weight loss.

Family influence
Strength and determination are characteristics Shukitis believes she gained from her parents. She grew up in the town of Huntington on Long Island, with three sisters and a brother. Her father, John Cooney, a man she describes as a gregarious Irishman who was smart, funny and loved his family, died while she was a senior in high school.

This led Shukitis to rethink her plan to attend Houghton College, where she was accepted as a violin major. She stayed home for a year to be with her mother, Joan Cooney Williams, who Shukitis describes as an incredibly strong woman who has had a lifelong influence on her. Shukitis’ mother was widowed at age 44 with five children but never wavered in her resolve to raise them on her own.

One of her sisters encouraged Shukitis to try nursing. She enrolled at Roberts Wesleyan College and earned a bachelor of science in nursing degree.

She loved bedside nursing but found she wanted more.

“I had the opportunity to move into management. One of my first responsibilities was to convert an acute-care wing of what was then Park Ridge Hospital to an alternate level of care unit for long-term-care patients waiting for a nursing home bed,” Shukitis recalls. “I discovered that I loved the project management and business side of health care. I knew from that point on that health care administration was where I wanted to spend my career.”

Outside of her VNS role, Shukitis serves on the Council for Elders Advisory Board for the Monroe County Office for the Aging and the Regional Commission for Community Health Improvement for the Finger Lakes Health System Planning Agency. She has been honored for her work several times, receiving the 2008 Innovative Program of the Year award from LeadingAge New York, the 2007 Employer Recognition Award from the Vocational Education Services for Individuals with Disabilities, and the 2006 Professional of the Year award from LeadingAge New York.

Grounded in faith
Another strong influence on Shukitis is her faith. She attended Holy Family High School in Huntington, continuing on to a Christian college, and today she is very active in her church, Aldersgate United Methodist in Greece, where she is a member of the contemporary worship team. She lends her talents with the violin and sings as well.

Shukitis also has taken part in Christian ministry with her husband, George.

The couple, married for 36 years, is active in United Marriage Encounter, a ministry to build strong marriages.

“We spent 22 years as a presenting team couple giving weekends around the country and the world, including Indonesia and Malaysia,” she says.

Her husband is a retired Target Corp. manager. Previously he held positions in supply and distribution at Park Ridge Hospital and also served as a chef at Strebbs Steak House Restaurant in Greece.

The couple has two grown children who still live in the Rochester area. Daughter Cori Louden completed her master’s degree in theology from Northeastern University and is a direct care staff member at Heritage Christian Services. Son John earned his bachelor’s degree in dramatic writing from SUNY Purchase and works as a customer support technician for Ellucian Co. L.P., a provider of education software, services and analytics.

Shukitis and her husband are avid golfers and belong to the Ridgemont Country Club. But she says one of their favorite pastimes is much more cozy.

“Life is so darn busy,” she says. “Our favorite thing to do is stay home on a Friday night and watch a movie.”

Reflecting on the values that have shaped her life and what ultimately means the most to her now, Shukitis says she has distilled her list to six: integrity, honesty, accountability, caring about people, collaboration and communication.

“If I had to pick just one, it would be integrity,” she says. “Living with integrity is the most important thing to me. It is grounded in my Christian faith, which is ultimately the foundation of my life.”

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Jane Shukitis
Position: President and CEO, Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester and Monroe County and Finger Lakes Visiting Nurse Service
Age: 59
Education: B.A. in nursing, Roberts Wesleyan College, 1978; master’s degree in public administration, SUNY College at Brockport, 1992
Family: Husband, George; daughter, Cori Shukitis Louden, 34; son, John, 31
Residence: Spencerport
Quote: “(Home health care is) more than a job. It’s a calling.”

2/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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