What with the unending gamesmanship over health reform in Washington and the recession everywhere, preparing for the future of health care is a daunting task.

Judith Persichilli, a New Jersey native who was just tapped to lead Catholic Health East, a big, East Coast health system based in Newtown Square, is focusing more on being nimble than on predicting details.

"You certainly can't plan for the unknown," Persichilli, 60, said this week.

What she can do is help the system take advantage of trends that currently have strong traction, approaches to care aimed at improving efficiency and quality. There will be more focus on technology and electronic medical records, she said. The system also will expand efforts to improve the health of populations of patients, to work jointly with physicians when contracting with insurers, and to provide care across the whole continuum from primary care through hospitalization.

"You're positioning yourself to meet the future challenges of reform," Persichilli said. "We're really asking all of our hospitals to look at the continuum of care not just acute care."

Catholic Health East, which considers its work a "ministry," has 54,000 employees from Maine to Florida. The system includes 34 acute-care hospitals as well as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home health and hospice agencies. In this region, it operates the Mercy and Lourdes health systems.

Persichilli, who grew up in Dunellen, N.J., began her career in health care as a staff nurse after graduating from the St. Francis School of Nursing, Trenton, in 1968. She went on to get a bachelor's degree in nursing from Rutgers and a master's in administration from Rider College. By 1995, she was chief executive officer of St. Francis Medical Center. She moved to Catholic Health East in 2003.

Last week, the system promoted her to executive vice president, chief operating officer, and CEO "designate." To smooth the transition, she will work side-by-side with current CEO Robert Stanek into next year.

"He and I have a great relationship and he's a great mentor," she said. "We're in constant communication face to face and by BlackBerry."

Persichilli sees her background in nursing as a plus because she understands medical treatment. She expects to see more instances of "the white coat over the suit rather than just a suit" at the top of the health-care food chain. "I think that's what our system needs to make the creative decisions about care processes."

Twelve percent of the nation's hospital CEOs have nursing credentials, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives, which used data from the American Hospital Association.

Eileen Sullivan-Marx, associate dean for practice and community affairs at the University of Pennsylvania's nursing school, said nursing, with its emphasis on communication, problem assessment, and problem solving, is good preparation for management.

Alan Zuckerman, a health consultant and president of Health Strategies and Solutions in Philadelphia, said Catholic Health has a long history of appointing women to top jobs.

He said he has worked with Persichilli in the past and was impressed. "She's everything you'd want in a chief executive officer," he said. "She's got brains. She's got talent. She's got people skills."

Two local CHE hospitals - Mercy Suburban in East Norriton and Lourdes in Willingboro - have made news recently with decisions to stop offering maternity care. Persichilli said such decisions are made well below her level on the basis of local needs. A service may be stopped, she said, "because we're not the market leader. In fact, maybe the community is telling us they can get taken care of in a more appropriate way somewhere else."

The maternity decisions were made by regional CHE officials, she said. "We don't drive strategy from the system office," she said. "We drive vision."

Judith Persichilli

New job: CEO designate, Catholic Health East.

Old job: executive vice president, acute care.

Employees: 54,000

Age: 60

Born: prematurely, with her twin, at St. Peter's Medical Center, New Brunswick, N.J.

Curious event: In 1988, became St. Peter's executive vice president and COO.

Married: 39 years to Tony Persichilli, a retired HR executive.

Home: Pennington, N.J. Tony is the mayor.

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Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.