Human ResourcesManaging the work and human sides of hospital careDebra Miller

Vice President of Human Resources

St. Joseph Health System–Sonoma County

1165 Montgomery Drive

Santa Rosa 95405



SANTA ROSA -- As vice president of human resources at St. Joseph Health System, Debra Miller oversees and coordinates a vast array of employees at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, which serves as the region’s level II trauma center, and at other sites – from skilled specialists performing high-stakes surgeries to the employees responsible for day-to-day operations that help patient care run as smoothly as possible.

Yet it’s a position that she never fully intended on pursuing, she said.

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“I didn’t really have any intentions to go into human resources,” Ms. Miller said. “I kind of accidently fell into it.”

What began as a career at HMOs in managed health care for the Southern California native eventually developed into a major human resources role at one of the largest employers of Sonoma County, which presently has about 2,400 employees and is the largest nonprofit employer in the county. 

The range of employees she oversees encompasses the full spectrum of care, from mobile clinics, disease prevention for underserved populations, acute hospital care and palliative and end-of-life care. In addition to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph Health System includes Petaluma Valley Hospital; two urgent care clinics in Rohnert Park; three hospice care centers in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg; and numerous dental clinics throughout the county.

Ms. Miller’s tenure in the North Bay began when she moved here in 1994 to work for Health Plan of the Redwoods, the former HMO. She moved from HPR into a position with St. Joseph, where she would seemingly continue in the field of managed health care.

But, she said, an opportunity arose to move into human resources, and her experience in managed care gave her a unique experience that easily translated to her current position. She became vice president in 2007. 

“When I was in managed health care, I oversaw day-to-day operations, so that was a natural transition,” she said.

Now, the level of complexity and the subsequent array of employment and work force issues at the hospital – from hourly wage compliance, intra-union battles, maintaining a safe work environment, attracting and retaining top-notch talent, to work-related injuries and labor relations – are both a challenge and a unique aspect of overseeing staff at both Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, she said.

She’s been an integral player in one of the North Bay’s most well-publicized labor disputes, one that has attracted national attention from the organized labor movement, as the National Union of Health Workers split from the Service Employees International Union—United Health Workers to form an independent union at the hospitals.

She’s also seen major nursing shortages at the hospital and has had to coordinate vaccinations for health care providers during the H1N1 crises.

“A big challenge is making sure our employees stay healthy, because they’re the ones providing care,” she said.

Hospitals, particularly a level II trauma center, present an especially challenging environment for human resources, she said. Tight regulation, little margin for error and the life and death that transpires within the workplace, coupled with constantly evolving changes such as how health care reform will affect both employees and patients, all must be juggled and dealt with in a careful and fair manner, she said – no easy task but one that can be immensely rewarding.

“It’s a pretty dynamic place,” she said. “It’s like a little microcosm of the community, and I find it to be fascinating."

“It can be very humbling,” she continued. “You’ll walk across the street, see patients and families crying, and it makes you stop and think, ‘This is a place where people are born and where they die.’ There’s a lot of sad news and good news.”

Numerous other workplace issues have arisen, particularly amid the economic downturn that almost no one has escaped.

“Debra Miller and her human resources team have ensured that displaced staff members were treated with dignity, compassion and were matched, whenever possible, to other job opportunities,” said Todd Salnas, chief operating officer of St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County.

Yet despite the often complicated and emotional nature of working in such a hospital, Ms. Miller and her HR team have collected accolades for maintaining an exceptional work standard for a diverse field of employees from custodians to volunteers, nurses' assistants, registered nurses and highly trained specialists, among others.

For three consecutive years – all of which she has overseen human resources – St. Joseph Health System has earned the Gallup Great Workplace award on a system-wide level. And both Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals have low employee vacancy rates, at 2.15 percent and 1.92 percent, respectively.

Ms. Miller also sits on the board of directors for the Sonoma-Mendocino county chapter of the American Red Cross, is a Retirement Plan Committee member for St. Joseph Health System and is a former board member for the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County.

She received her undergraduate degree in health services administration from California State University-Northridge and a master’s degree in human resources and organizational management from the University of San Francisco.

“I’ve always been drawn to health care,” said Ms. Miller.