Jessica Aguilar is the senior executive director of Women’s, Children’s and Cancer across the Sanford Health system, a position she has held for about three years. She has a background in health administration and a belief in the value of collaboration across a large, integrated health system. She also believes in the importance of saying yes to the opportunities Sanford Health presents.
Inspired by her sister
Jessica Aguilar was born in New Jersey but moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at a young age and was raised there. She attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she developed a passion for politics and earned degrees in political science and economics. At the time, she envisioned herself going out to work on health policy in Washington, D.C.
Her passion for health policy grew out of the experience of having a sister with leukemia as a child, which meant spending a lot of time in hospitals and clinics. She wanted to be involved in health care but initially was drawn to policy rather than patient care.
Policy and health care careers
Following graduation from Luther College, Aguilar became the finance director for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s special election race for the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2004 and then the regular election that November.
During her time on the campaigns, she had the opportunity to sit in on meetings with health policy leaders and administrators. She saw there were career possibilities in working for a health care provider without holding a medical degree.
Thereafter, Aguilar took a job with the software company Epic during a period of great expansion when many health systems were switching to electronic medical records.
“It was then that I realized this is what I’m passionate about: I want to be working in hospitals and clinics,” she said.
Aguilar enrolled at the University of Iowa for a master’s in health administration. This was followed by a two-year administrative fellowship at Mayo Clinic, where she rotated through service lines to gain experience.
Joining Sanford Health
At that point, Aguilar and her husband were thinking about starting a family and how nice it would be to live closer to extended family. Aguilar had been hearing a lot about Sanford Health at the time. In particular she’d heard of Denny Sanford’s large gifts to the health system, news of which her parents were always passing along.
So she applied for and accepted a job as the clinic director for the hospitalist and emergency medicine providers at Sanford Health.
Arriving at Sanford Health felt like coming home because she was already familiar with many of the physicians, such as Dr. Craig Uthe and Dr. Dan Blue, who had been her primary care physician growing up.
“What I loved about my job was that even though I was a clinic director, I was working with the hospital-based providers. So I got to see the effectiveness of an integrated health system.”
At the time, her job focused a lot on recruitment.
“I had to be an advocate not only for Sanford Health but for living in Sioux Falls,” Aguilar said. “That was fun to do. It made me realize how much I love this community and how much I believe in Sanford Health as an organization.”
Her next contributions
Around five years into her time at Sanford Health, a job was posted with Imagenetics and the Edith Sanford Breast Center that she accepted. Through that position, she met two outstanding mentors: Jan Haugen-Rogers and Dr. Gene Hoyme.
She was the third person on the team, and there was no clear playbook to accomplish the milestones set out as a part of these initiatives.
Now, Aguilar is the senior executive director for Women’s, Children’s and Cancer, where she still works with the Edith initiative.
“I work together with the leaders from each region to find out what we can accomplish together. Where do we want to go? How can we be on the forefront?”
Traveling across the enterprise, she is continually impressed by the size and scope of what Sanford Health does.
Bringing people together
Once a year, Aguilar gets together with the physician leaders and executive leaders from each service line to hold a retreat, usually in Fargo. They look at their accomplishments over the past year and develop new big ideas. She said, “What, to me, has been most rewarding is to see us tackle something larger and accomplish it.”
Aguilar has long been working on the Sanford Children’s Genomic Medicine Consortium, a group of seven children’s hospitals across the country that works on genetics and genomics specific to children. She sits on the Executive Council and represents Sanford Children’s Hospital. Aguilar is proud of what the group has accomplished, such as rapid genetic testing for NICU babies.
Looking ahead, Aguilar hopes to develop more collaboration. Specifically she wants peers in the same specialty but from different locations working together to realize the benefit of a large health system.
Aguilar is married and has a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. She is thankful that living in Sioux Falls allows her children to have a close relationship with extended family.
Even though she no longer works on campaigns, Aguilar still follows news and politics closely. She reads a couple of newspapers daily and says it helps provide a connection to the outside world.
Aguilar was able to realize her vision of playing an important role in health care. Her time at Sanford Health has allowed her to advance to different roles and continue to lead and encourage collaboration.
“Sanford Health provides a wealth of opportunities,” she said. “What served me well is having an open mind and saying yes to things.”
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