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Front & Center: Caring for others central to Elaine Couture, chief executive of Providence Health & Services

Elaine Couture, executive vice president and chief executive of Providence Health & Services Washington-Montana, oversees operations for 13 hospitals and several clinics.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Elaine Couture, executive vice president and chief executive of Providence Health & Services Washington-Montana, oversees operations for 13 hospitals and several clinics. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Caring for others comes naturally to Elaine Couture.

She began a career in health care more than 40 years ago, starting as a frontline nurse and rising through the ranks to become executive vice president and chief executive of Providence Health & Services Washington-Montana.

As regional chief executive, Couture oversees operations for 13 hospitals and several clinics in Washington and Montana. Under Couture’s leadership, the health care provider’s regional network has expanded to more than 21,000 employees and 127,000 hospital admissions per year.

Couture also serves as chief executive for Inland Northwest Health Services and is a member of several community and national advisory boards. She’s directed expansion of expanded residency programs in the region, implemented telehealth sites, launched joint venture partnerships to improve access to acute behavioral health care and helped establish a medical school in Spokane.

Couture, who has announced she will retire next year, has led Providence’s hospitals in the region through the COVID-19 pandemic, which, she said, has been life-altering for the nation and community. She said navigating the pandemic has been challenging, but it has brought innovative changes in how to care for patients.

“I am just so eternally grateful to the people that show up every single day to take care of others,” Couture said. “And what better way to show mankind – or your neighbor – how much you love them by caring for them in some of their most vulnerable times … just the kindness that I’ve seen has been really incredible.”

From nurse to executive

Couture’s interest in health care was sparked as a high school student in the Chicago area, where she was a babysitter for a nurse who worked the night shift.

“As we talked about career opportunities and what was entailed to be a nurse, she really encouraged me to look into the field of nursing,” Couture said. “We talked about how she was able to be a nurse, maintain her family, and she really felt like she was saving lives, and that also intrigued me. I decided that from there on that I was going to go into health care.”

Couture volunteered as a candy striper at a Catholic health care facility and served as a nurse’s aide in high school. She “took care of patients and loved every moment of it,” she said.

Following her family’s move to Billings when she was in high school, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Montana State University. After graduation, she got a job as a bedside nurse at Saint Vincent Healthcare in Billings. She later became nurse manager and launched LifeCare, an occupational health and wellness program.

In 1987, she started work at Providence Saint Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, where she rose to a leadership role as chief nursing officer and obtained a master’s degree in business administration from Liberty University in 1994.

Couture moved to Spokane and became vice president of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in 2002. A decade later, she assumed the role of chief executive for Providence Health & Services.

Couture said the shift from caregiver to an executive role in the health care organization was significant, but she learned in nursing school the profession needs leaders in addition to people working daily with patients.

“I think, for me, that shift was instead of being the caretaker for patients, I became the caretaker for the caregivers, ensuring they have the supplies, the resources they need to take care of our patients … and to make certain that I represent them,” she said.

An executive role also involves solving health care issues and crises with a team of people to ensure caregivers’ needs are met so that, in turn, they can meet patients’ needs, Couture said.

‘God, family and … work’

Couture has experienced heartfelt moments with patients throughout her career.

She recalls staying with a patient who had no family with him and was dying from lung cancer. She held the patient’s hand as he took his last breath. Couture also remembers saving a baby during a birthing experience.

“I remember all these peoples’ stories and that has helped me, I believe, to understand what our patients go through,” she said.

Couture said she’s had many mentors who provided support throughout her career.

“The best advice that I ever got from anybody was to remember these three things: It’s God, family, and, then, work. If you had those three things in balance, then your career would be in balance, and it would be very fulfilling,” she said. “That has been true in my life. My faith is very important to me. My family is extremely important to me, and, then, it’s work for me.”

Couture said her husband and children have been supportive of her career of caring for others, which sometimes meant picking up extra shifts, among other things.

“I owe a lot of gratitude to my husband and to my daughters for really keeping me grounded and making certain that when I was at home, I was wife and mother and not the health care leader,” she said.

A career in health care

Couture encourages people to explore a health care career because of the array of professions within the industry.

“We have research scientists who work for us. We need people who are very good fiscally to work with us. We need great communication people. We need great clinical people,” she said. “There are so many different places that you can go and health care isn’t that people will just be in the acute care setting. There is the long-term care, extended-facility settings. There are health insurance settings. The list really is endless.”

Couture said choosing a career in nursing is the best thing she’s done.

“Being a nurse really has been a wonderful career for me,” she said. “I encourage people all the time to think about health care and it’s something that – when you think about job security – everybody will need health care at some point in time. You just do.

“It may not be today, but you are going to need it at some point in time. So it really does add job security, and it’s flexible.”

Paving the way for the next generation

After more than 34 years with Providence Health & Services, Couture is retiring early next year.

“It’s just time for me to go ahead and allow for the next generation to come in,” she said, adding that she wants to spend more time with family and friends.

Couture said she will miss the people she works with the most.

“Because they’re the best part of the day for me and they give me so much joy,” Couture said, adding she is proud of their work and contributions to the organization.

In retirement, Couture will continue to volunteer at organizations to further improve health care in the community.

“I really want to see our communities become more healthy, and that we really address health equity,” she said.

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