Alumni Spotlights

Sandra Festa Ryan, '83: A Pioneer in the Changing Landscape of Healthcare

January 16, 2012 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

Sandra Festa Ryan, '83, is apologetic. She's had to interrupt our conversation a few times almost before it began to take care of business in her office at the Conshohocken, Pa., headquarters of Take Care Health Systems, Walgreens. “It's such a crazy day here,” she laughs.

It's understandable that Sandra would be busy. One of six founding officers of Take Care, the largest and most comprehensive manager of worksite health and wellness centers and in-store convenient care clinics in the country, she is responsible for managing and overseeing all clinic-related operations and the more than 1,300 nurse practitioners in the organization's 360 clinics located in select Walgreens stores nationwide.

It's a job she is passionate about, because it enables her to advocate for nurse practitioners and their increasingly growing role in the healthcare industry. In fact, it was the opportunity to be a voice for nurse practitioners that first interested her in becoming involved with Take Care Health Systems.

“I had heard about a company that was forming, that was looking to utilize nurse practitioners while trying to improve access, cost and quality of care for patients,” she explains. When she discovered that Take Care Health would give her a platform “to increase the visibility of nurse practitioners so that people really understand how they educated, trained, and what an impact they have been making in healthcare delivery,” she accepted the position of chief nurse practitioner officer for the company and became the first such officer in the convenient care industry.

For the past six years, she has helped to build a transformational national system of nurse practitioner-centric healthcare and become a leading spokesperson on behalf of a collaborative healthcare team for patients. Her contributions to the convenient care industry are significant: she spearheaded the creation of a companywide quality assurance program; contributed to the establishment of a proprietary electronic medical record system that is lauded as exemplary in the industry; was instrumental in the development and implementation of the convenient care industry's Quality and Safety Standards; and launched a third-party certification process. She also orchestrated the first Retail Clinician Education Congress to address the educational needs of industry providers. Her work has earned her numerous awards and recognitions; most recently, she was elected as the first nurse practitioner to the Fellowship of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the nation's oldest medical society, and selected as a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow.

The notion that nurse practitioners were not equal partners to primary care physicians was somewhat of a surprise for Sandra, who spent more than 16 years as a nurse corps officer in the United States Air Force, caring for patients from birth to geriatrics in inpatient and outpatient settings.

“In the military, everyone is looked at as part of professional staff,” she says. “It wasn't by your discipline as much as it was by your rank and skills. The military's one of the best organizations for using a very team-based approach to taking care of patients. Everyone has specific duties and responsibilities, but it's all about how you do that as a team because if the next person can't do it, you need to be able to step into your highest level of education and training and provide that.”

After Sandra earned certification as a nurse practitioner, she enjoyed an even more collaborative relationship with the physicians and pharmacists she worked alongside. “It gave me an even greater depth of understanding of the medical collaborative piece and the collaboration that's needed to facilitate the best care possible for patients,” she notes.

Had she not gone into the military, she might not have gained this insight. One of five children born into a “very Italian family living in a very Italian town,” Sandra was expected to return home after graduating from Niagara's College of Nursing. However, her wanderlust inspired her to enlist in the Air Force. She swore in on her commencement day, asking to be stationed in a warm city as far as possible from her home in Rome, N.Y. She was assigned to Sacramento, Calif.

Sandra's talent and tenacity opened doors that enabled her to continue developing her skills as a nurse. She was chosen for the Air Force's competitive six-month internship program shortly after enlisting. Later in her career, she was selected for its Institute of Technology, which enabled her to attend Arizona State University to earn her master's degree in maternal child nursing and certification as a pediatric nurse practitioner.

In 1999, Sandra, who was now married with three children and one on the way, decided to take advantage of the Air Force's early retirement option. She moved to New Jersey and took a couple of years off before accepting a part-time position with a pediatric office close to her home. Here, she became acutely aware of the high cost of healthcare for families and the difficulties they faced in juggling work and time off for doctor visits, knowledge that encouraged her to find a way to provide improved access, affordability and quality of care for patients.

When the Take Care Health opportunity came her way, she accepted it with the desire to change the way healthcare is delivered. “Everybody should have access to health care,” she says. “We shouldn't have children who are not immunized; we should be focused on promoting health, preventing disease versus treating disease.”

Take Care Health clinics are the realization of these goals. Today, in clinics at select Walgreens stores across the country, nurse practitioners see patients on a walk-in basis, seven days a week, providing a variety of healthcare services including treatment for acute illnesses, minor injuries, vaccinations, and high blood pressure screening and diagnosis. Although the clinics accept most insurance plans, they are an attractive option for the uninsured and those without a primary care provider, and have earned top scores in Gallup polls measuring customer engagement.

“It gives me the chills, knowing that you really can make a significant difference in people's lives and hopefully save them from any kind of suffering and pain if you can get them the right care at the right time,” Sandra says.

Throughout her career, Sandra has remained true to the Catholic values she was raised with and strengthened during her time at Niagara.

“Once you're out of college,” she notes, “what you do with your life reflects on your core values. Niagara built on the foundation that I had growing up, which is the core of who you are in your day-to-day interactions and how you look at the world and what difference you want to make in the world. By being someone who has strong core values and is willing to stand by them in order to do the best thing possible by patients or by the colleagues that I lead, I've been able to make a positive impact.”