How UM BWMC grew its community roots into healthcare excellence

With a passion for patient outcomes, a thoughtful nature and a steady demeanor, Karen Olscamp propelled UM BWMC into an exceptional period of growth.


By Christianna McCausland
Photography by Rachel Smith

Karen Olscamp speaks with quiet, measured dignity about opportunities when no one would blame the average healthcare executive for raging against a rapidly changing system. For the last six years, Olscamp has led University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center (UM BWMC) through an exceptional period of growth as the hospital’s president and CEO. She has also steered it through some of the most dramatic changes ever to hit the healthcare industry, including the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, changes to regulations at the state level, an emerging, nationwide physician shortage, and the addition of a robust electronic medical record system. While Olscamp may be passionate about patient care and the mission of the hospital, her thoughtful nature and steady demeanor make her a calming force during a stormy tide.


Olscamp credits some of her thoughtfulness to her mentor, UM BWMC’s previous CEO, Jim Walker. “[Jim] was a great mentor who both personally and professionally had a profound impact on my life,” she explains. “He [taught me] about the value of relationships and being thoughtful … healthcare and hospitals are complex and you have to make sure you’ve looked at different angles before you make a decision.”
Olscamp has had plenty of time to learn her organization inside and out. She arrived at what was then called North Arundel Hospital 27 years ago. After receiving her Master’s degree in health services administration from George Washington University, she joined an administrative residency at UM BWMC in 1987 and never left. In a time when it’s standard practice to move from one job to the next as a means of climbing the organizational ladder, Olscamp knows she goes against the norm.

“Every five to seven years, my job changed enough that I felt I could grow professionally while staying at the same organization,” she explains. Prior to becoming CEO, Olscamp was chief operating officer and, before that, vice president of operations. She began as an assistant to administration. “How fortunate I am, because I think that is unusual.”


One could say that Olscamp grew up alongside UM BWMC. The hospital is relatively young — it will celebrate 50 years in 2015. When Olscamp joined its ranks, UM BWMC was a small community hospital. The surrounding area has grown and so, too, has the hospital. Its emergency department, for example, is one of the busiest in Maryland with more than 104,000 patient visits annually. In the six years since Olscamp became CEO, she’s cut the ribbon on a 15,000-square-foot emergency room expansion, an operating room expansion, a new, nine-story patient tower and the Pascal Women’s Center, which brought obstetrics back to the campus after a 41-year hiatus.

“This organization has really evolved in terms of providing high-quality care. The clinical sophistication of the services provided here has exploded.”
Karen E. Olscamp, president and CEO, UM BWMC

The center has grown in stature, too. UM BWMC has been named one of the nation’s 100 top hospitals by Thomson Reuters, and has appeared on U.S. News & World Report rankings for neurology, neurosurgery and digestive disorders. It’s been an exciting time for the hospital, one reason Olscamp has not been tempted to leave.

“This organization has really evolved in terms of providing high-quality care,” she states. “The clinical sophistication of the services provided here has exploded.”

Longevity has its benefits. Olscamp speaks often about the importance of trusted relationships, and nothing helps build that bond like a 27-year stretch with one organization. “Karen brings a history of the organization that is important — it keeps us grounded in the reason we exist, in our mission,” says Kathleen McCollum, senior vice president, clinical integration, and chief operating officer. McCollum states that she has great respect for the fact that Olscamp hasn’t become complacent over time.

“With Karen, she’s always looking ahead, and she’s not afraid to make difficult decisions,” McCollum says. “She’s very progressive and can build on her tenure and experience here to help the organization through the pretty dramatic changes going on around us.”

One such change took place in 2000 when UM BWMC became part of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS). The hospital had gone through a strategic planning process where it looked at the services it needed to provide to meet its community’s needs. Merging with a larger entity allowed the hospital to expand its clinical programs and leverage benefits (like better buying power and access to IT talent) without losing its community roots.

“Going into a merger, you have to be clear about expectations,” states Olscamp. “What is it you’re trying to achieve? And you have to have tangible and realistic goals. For us, it was around some specific clinical programs.” It’s no accident that oncology, cardiology and women’s health, for example, ramped up in the post-UMMS years.


GROWTH AND CHANGEWhen you’re growing a business the ability to be adaptable and manage change are two of the most important traits in a leader. Here’s what UM BWMC president and CEO Karen Olscamp has to say about leading and growing a world-class health organization.

“Communicate honestly and transparently with
your audiences.”

“Put people in place who can execute a
vision-based strategy.”

“Know exactly how and where you want to grow.”

“Make sure you can deliver the product or service.”

“See opportunities, not obstacles. Adapt.”

“Build flexibility into your strategic plan. The world is changing at a pace of 18 to 24 months, not five years.”

Healthcare faces some real challenges, not least of all is the uncertainty surrounding the roll out of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). According to Olscamp, the ACA is asking all hospitals to focus more on the continuum of care, not just the episodic care of the sick. It’s also pushing providers to offer better quality at a better value. The ACA has changed much of the landscape of healthcare, leaving uncertainty about how it will look and act in the future. In the face of change, Olscamp steers everyone back to the hospital’s bedrock — the fundamental mission of quality care for the community.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone understands what the new environment looks like to the best of our ability when the reality is that some of that is still being shaped,” she states. “Fundamentally, our mission hasn’t changed, so we’re talking about what has and hasn’t changed and the opportunities to stay focused on our mission within the context of the new environment.”

In addition to the ACA, the shortage of primary care physicians in the pipeline is very real. Technology holds tremendous potential for improving patient outcomes and providing better value care, but it is expensive and the average operating margin for hospitals in Maryland for FY13 was just about 0.5 percent. “That’s razor thin, so you’ve got to be very wise about the capital investments that you make,” Olscamp says.

Despite this murky and challenged environment, Olscamp refuses to be daunted. A lot of industries have gone through transformative changes, whether it is airlines or banks, and she’s open to learning from the experiences of others through her board work and professional organizations. She sees opportunities for nurse practitioners and other models of care to help with the shortage of primary care physicians.

She is willing to look at eliminating redundancies and improving the coordination of care to provide better quality care at a better value. She is laser-focused on expense management to decrease the cost of care in such a way as to still enhance quality.

“We know there’s a role technology can play in care coordination. We know we need to be more efficient and effective in terms of providing care,” Olscamp explains. “Directionally, there are things that we know, and we can’t allow the lack of exact, specific clarity to serve as a barrier or excuse not to start moving. People get overwhelmed, so they do nothing. That, I think, is deadly.”


Olscamp is extremely knowledgeable about not only the operations of the hospital but the technical aspects as well. She knows how much a da Vinci robotic surgery system costs, of course, but she also knows a little something about how it works, too, and how it impacts patient outcomes. Patient outcomes are her passion. She is smart, articulate and dignified almost to a point that is unique in today’s casual-Friday climate. But according to Louis L. Zagarino, UM BWMC’s board chairman, “What separates her into a different class is her compassion.”

Though she does not go so far as to call herself a consensus builder, Olscamp believes in looking at an issue from many different perspectives. She recently instituted a patient and family advisory board so the community can have a greater voice in the hospital. She holds employee open forums several times a year, as well as an informal breakfast with the CEO once a month. There is an online forum where employees can anonymously communicate questions for feedback.
“I think that hearing different perspectives and listening to all our constituencies — our community, the employees, our medical staff — is critically important,” she says.

Olscamp is very transparent about what is going well in the hospital and what needs improvement, and she looks for ideas and feedback from all quarters. She doesn’t believe that you can lead in a vacuum, but rather, “There’s a time for a sense of urgency; there’s a time for a little more patience. It has to be tailored to the situation and a changing environment.”

But at the end of the day, someone needs to make a decision, and Olscamp does not shy away from making the toughest calls. Zagarino has worked with Olscamp for 15 years. He says that looks can be deceiving. “She comes across as an extremely feminine individual, quiet, almost laid-back,” he explains. “Later, I learned her passion is extremely strong and she really knows how to get things done. She seems able to put ideas across in a very quiet way and then all of a sudden you realize it’s done.”

More than anything, Olscamp leads by example. “People will listen to what you say, but they watch what you do,” she says. Walking through the hospital with Olscamp, it is obvious that she does not come to work and tuck herself away in her office. She seems to know every staff member by name (UM BWMC employs 2,800 people). Olscamp regularly goes on rounds, as does the entire management team.

“She believes strongly in being visible,” McCollum says. “She likes to have lunch in the cafeteria and walk through the emergency department on busy days. She keeps her finger on the pulse of what’s happening at the bedside, not just from the executive office.”


Even though the community surrounding UM BWMC has grown, it’s still a small town in many ways. The connections Olscamp makes with personnel and patients are important because, unlike many industries, healthcare is extremely personal and, at times, a matter of life and death. It’s not uncommon for patients or their family members to approach Olscamp for a chat in the grocery store or to call and write with questions or concerns.

Leading the hospital through a time of tremendous growth and change has been very much a team effort between the community, the hospital staff and the medical staff, but it was Olscamp who got everyone, “in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.” Fortunately, the mission of UM BWMC, unlike that of a typical business, is one that brings people together.

“Appealing to the greater good and greater cause keeps people together,” Olscamp says. “One thing about healthcare is [that] anyone in healthcare cares about patient care and is passionate about it. That’s the glue that binds everyone together.”

UM BWMC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2015 and with that comes a new strategic plan. Though Olscamp will only hint at what developments might be on the horizon, her mission is clear: Provide the best quality healthcare for the best value without losing that small-town touch. CEO

Christianna McCausland is a freelance writer based in Reisterstown, MD. Contact us at


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