Sr. Werthman pioneered the use of data to advance community health

July 2023



In the 1980s, when Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM, set out to pinpoint pockets of unmet health needs in communities served by Mercy Health Services, there were no database dashboards to yield the coordinates. The information age was in its infancy.

Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM, led the crowd in advancing community benefit spending to address food and housing insecurity and promote economic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Once Films

Sr. Werthman used census and other public data to locate at-risk populations and she developed formats to use that information in community benefit planning. Mercy Health Services was a predecessor to Trinity Health in Michigan and Iowa.

Sr. Werthman encouraged hospital leaders to get out into neighborhoods and talk to people struggling with poverty and related social barriers and let them have a say in setting the health system's outreach priorities. That forged the path for what would follow.

"The modern history of Catholic health care community needs assessment can be traced to Sr. Linda Werthman," said Julie Trocchio, CHA's senior director of community benefit and continuing care.

Sr. Werthman, the 2023 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award, influenced the association's work in shaping public policy related to community benefit spending by hospitals and health systems. Sr. Werthman, who holds a doctorate in social policy and planning, was ahead of the crowd too in helping to advance community benefit spending to address food and housing insecurity and promote economic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In nominating Sr. Werthman for the career recognition, Sr. Mary Ann Dillon, RSM, said that throughout her 40 years in Catholic health care governance Sr. Werthman has had a singular dedication to assure that those experiencing poverty and who are vulnerable will be cared for within Catholic health care organizations in Detroit, where she lives, and well beyond. Sr. Dillon is Trinity Health's executive vice president of mission integration and sponsorship.

A founding member of the Detroit-based Sisters of Mercy Health Corp., in the mid-1970s Sr. Werthman supported new governance structures that would extend and strengthen the legacy of the religious communities whose works were a part of Sisters of Mercy, especially their concern for marginalized and underserved people.

Later, as president of the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community of Detroit, Sr. Werthman would partner with Holy Cross Health Services to establish the second U.S.-based ministerial juridic person, Catholic Health Ministries. The MJP led to the forming of Trinity Health, which in 2013 consolidated with Catholic Health East.

Mike Slubowski, Trinity Health president and chief executive, said of Sr. Werthman: "She knew from day one that the only way we can truly deliver on our mission is to advance community health and well-being by impacting the social influencers of health."

Woman of action
Now semi-retired, Sr. Werthman is a member of the Trinity Health Michigan regional board and the board of Trinity Health Detroit, an entity within Trinity Health Michigan that partners with Detroit residents to empower them to have healthy communities. She sits on the board of the Pope Francis Center in Detroit, which provides vital services to people who are without permanent shelter. She also is a trustee at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. From 2012 to 2019, Sr. Werthman was a member of the Trinity Health board. She chaired Catholic Health Ministries from 2016 to 2018. She is past chair and board member of Mercy Housing,

"The marrying of clinical and social care has always been at the forefront for her," Slubowski said in an interview. He added that Sr. Werthman's penchant for careful reflection inspires him, as does her gift for turning thoughts into action. "Sr. Linda is so involved in making things happen, both in her role in governance in the health care system and at a community level," he said. "She's very connected."

Slubowski recalled how Sr. Werthman's visionary input in 2000 helped shape the Samaritan Center into "a premier community, social and medical services resource center in one of the most challenged neighborhoods of Detroit."

"When Sr. Linda speaks, people listen," Slubowski said.

The potter's wheel
Sr. Helen Marie Burns, RSM, a longtime colleague and close friend, said that while it's Sr. Werthman's nature to be focused on action and purpose, she has a soft side. "There is a heart there that is very generous and respectful, and she is genuinely interested in people. She wants to be helpful, and as the eldest in her family, she has honed that into a virtue. Whether people are being served, whether they have what they need to flourish — that is her focus."

Sr. Burns, who met Sr. Werthman in the 1970s, reported that her friend spends her leisure time reading nonfiction and historical novels, attending Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts and seeing plays at community theaters.

"She enjoys good conversation and walks in nature, and she's a potter. She first took lessons about 10 years ago." Laughing, Sr. Burns added, "She also likes Star Wars and James Bond movies — interests that I don't share."

Twice a month, both women serve meals at the Pope Francis Center. "Sr. Linda is not one to move from cause to cause, and the steady thread of her focus has been concern for those on the margins," Sr. Burns said. "That began with economic poverty and has developed into understanding how race marginalizes people and is moving toward broader interests, such as marginalization due to sexual orientation."

Setting the standard
Sr. Werthman was born and brought up on the west side of Detroit, not far from her current home, in what she described as "a Catholic, white world." She entered the convent at 17, and later graduated from Mercy College with degrees in history and elementary education.

"I taught math and science for four years, and while in the classroom, I realized some students needed more attention than others," she said. "That made me want to go back to school to study social work." She received a stipend from the National Institute for Mental Health and enrolled in Michigan State University. "Social work opened a world for me, one that led to working in health care governance."

One of Sr. Werthman's early mentors was the late Sr. Mary Janice Belen, RSM. "At the very young age of 28 or 29, I was taken by the hand of Sr. Belen, who was the chief executive officer and board chair at St. Lawrence Jackson Hospitals in Michigan," she said. "She wanted me on her board, which for me was learning on the job — and some of it wasn't pretty.

In 1985, Sr. Werthman earned her Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. A year later, Judith Call, then executive vice president of Mercy Health Services (formerly known as Sisters of Mercy Health Corp.), asked Sr. Werthman to be a director on The Special Initiative for the Poor, a project to assess the health system's services. Susannah Parker Sinard was the project's associate director. Sr. Werthman describes the working relationship as the best of her career.

After six months of listening to hospital administrators, workers and board members, it was clear that those individuals were at a loss. "They did not really know who the poor were; they didn't know them as persons," Sr. Werthman said. "To their credit, they did want to know what they were doing for the poor, so we created a process. We suggested they go into the community to talk to educators, social service providers and the people at risk, people who were economically poor and didn't know how to access health care. That effort, The Community Assessment of Human Needs, is one of the things Susannah and I are most proud of."

Around that same time, CHA's Trocchio started exploring what distinguishes Catholic and other not-for-profit health care from the emerging for-profit health care sector.

Trocchio said: "Over 30 years ago, I was assigned the task of identifying Catholic and other not-for-profit hospitals to learn how they distinguish themselves in meeting community health needs so we could provide a guide. We looked up what was out there on community assessments, casting a wide net to see who was doing what. Some were conducting interviews; some were knocking on doors."

Sr. Werthman, Trocchio discovered, was using statistics and other hard data — information that was not so easily available then. "She was the only person in the country using data to determine community needs, poring over census data and reports from health departments. That changed everything," Trocchio said. "Soon, people all over the country started using her method, and it became the standard."


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