Solving big problems

From patient safety to emergency preparedness to mentoring interns, Susan Waltman is at the center of public health issues in New York

Solving big problems

Susan Waltman

Photo by: Peter Frey

Susan Waltman’s phone rings steadily on this Wednesday morning in February. Co-workers peek inside her door to see if she’s free. She checks her emails.

“There’s a salt shortage,” she says. In the next 18 hours, a snow and ice storm will hit the Northeast.

That’s a big deal to Waltman (AB ’73, MSW ’75), who, as executive vice president for legal, regulatory and professional affairs, and counsel for the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), is responsible for helping health care providers prepare to weather the storm.

Later that day, her office will talk with the New York City Office of Emergency Management. GNYHA will remind its members—250 not-for-profit and public hospitals and continuing care facilities—to review emergency preparedness plans, make sure they have enough fuel for generators in case of power outages and monitor radios and weather service reports.

A recording on the association’s emergency phone line includes Waltman’s personal cell phone number so that members can reach her at any time. Just in case, she has a sleeping bag in her office.

“We always have to do the right thing and do it right,” she says. “We’re considered trusted agents by our hospitals and by the agencies we work with.”

Raised in Millville, N.J., just outside of Philadelphia, Waltman only looked at the South when she shopped for colleges. She picked UGA based on photos in a brochure and didn’t visit the campus until she arrived for her freshman year.

“It looked very nice,” she says. “I lucked out. It’s a terrific school, and I received a wonderful education.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in social work, Waltman went to law school at Columbia University in New York, the same as her grandfather, father and son, now an attorney in Atlanta. Her first job was working for a health care firm in Philadelphia. Next she went to work for what was then the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

She’s been in New York 27 years. The association was much smaller when she got there. One of the first issues she faced was a nursing shortage caused by a visa issue with nurses from the Philippines. She investigated and found that their visas were expiring before they could get green cards.

“That is what the law says,” she told her boss, explaining the problem.

“Well, change the law,” he told her. She worked with the office of then-N.Y. Congressman Charles Schumer to get the law changed. Over the years she has had a hand in legal, regulatory and professional affairs issues that relate to patient safety.

“Our job is to solve problems,” she says. “We solve big problems.”

About eight years ago, she added another responsibility: Hosting UGA Honors students for summer internships. The students, who are considering jobs in medicine, public health or health policy, get real-life experience. One intern, Waltman recalls, used World Health Organization criteria to create a tool for measuring effective hand washing, a key component of infection control, which was shared with other hospitals. Another did research on evidence-based approaches to reducing obesity.

As much as the students get out of the experience, Waltman, a trustee of the UGA Foundation and the UGA Research Foundation, says she gets more.

“I view it as a privilege to work with these students,” she says. “It’s an exceptionally personal, rewarding experience.”