Empath Health CEO Sciullo: Keep Hospice Energized, Focused on Patients

Empath Health CEO Rafael Sciullo recently received the prestigious Galen Miller Leadership Award at the National Hospice Foundation’s annual gala in Maryland. Empath Health is the parent company of Tidewell Hospice and Suncoast Hospice, and offers a range of other senior care services.

The company merged with Stratum Health in 2020.

The National Hospice Foundation, an affiliate of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), created the award in 2014 in memory of Galen Miller, who served as the industry group’s executive vice president for 12 years.


This award is designed to recognize a “champion and advocate from the field who has demonstrated the highest levels of dedication and passion for the hospice and palliative care community and the patients and families that receive care.”

Sciullo sat down with Hospice News to discuss his observations on how the hospice space has changed since the Medicare benefit was established, and what he sees for on the industry’s horizon.

What first brought you to the hospice space? What led you to believe this is what you wanted to do?


I was with the Franciscans as a friar for 10 years. They are very rooted in social ministry. I lived on a Navajo reservation for a period of time. It was during that time in working with the Native Americans that I just really learned a lot of their views and their philosophy. One of them that resonated with me was that dying was really the unfolding of life.

I began to be involved in ministering to people with advanced illness and people that were dying. That was also the time when AIDS surfaced, and it really was devastatingly, killing people by the thousands.

I was an oncology social worker in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1980, and that was really when hospice was beginning there. So I began ministering to people with AIDS, which I also did in San Diego for three years as I was finishing up a master’s degree.

I later went to Connecticut, and I met [former dean of Yale School of Nursing] Florence Wald, who obviously was a founder of hospice. I feel so blessed that she really became a mentor to me, and she and I worked together on a number of projects.

I have never felt a better fit for me in my life’s work than I do with hospice.

You’ve been in the industry for 35 years, how have you seen it change and evolve during that time?

Well, it certainly was smaller in the sense that there was less access to people that really needed the care. There was such a fervor, such a passion, to hold it true to its philosophy and the values and to keep that intact and really move that forward.

Of course, we saw a shift when the Medicare benefit was founded. Then we were able to create more access for people that really needed the care. Over the years, I sometimes have seen us move away from the true center, the patient and the family and listening to them.

We get so involved in other things in the business of health care that affect us, but we should never pull away from the patient and family at the center.

In the early days, we had pioneers, but now we’re all called upon to rise because hospice is so vast now. We all have to dare to be brave for the future. My hope is that that passion and that fervor continue to remain. We don’t get tired and bogged down by all the challenges around us.

You mentioned your mentor as you entered the field. Now that you are the more experienced leader in the space, if you were to mentor someone what would be the most important messages that you would want to get across to them?

Be a better listener than a talker. Make sure that you’re really listening to your environment, the people that are around you. That means the people that we serve, the people that work with us, our caregivers. I really feel that we can learn so much from them.

As a leader, I don’t believe we’re ever truly [reach a destination]. We’re always learning every day, and we learn by listening. So much of what hospice and palliative care are is because of what we’ve learned from the people that we serve. I would say continue to really have that as a hallmark of leadership for the future.

Never lose sight of the fact that we are being honored to care for people. Never take that for granted.

As a leader, we have to be with our teams through all the challenges that we dealt with over the last two years, and what’s been weighing on them. We need to understand what they’re experiencing, and what they’re going through.

It’s something that we really need to be on top of every day. This isn’t just about providing care to somebody. This isn’t just about working with somebody. This is about walking in their shoes and feeling aligned with them.

We’ve talked about what has changed over your tenure in hospice. What do you think the future of hospice will look like? What is the trajectory?

I think we are seeing obviously with the pilot programs that are coming out of [the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation], and the move towards relationships with managed care providers. That is extremely critical, athose relationships should not be on an inequitable level.

We are going to have more partners with them in providing the care. We understand that they may be the payer at some point. They need to be truly aware that we’re all about caring for the patient. What does the patient need? What should hospice and palliative care be providing for them?

I’ll be honest with you. From talking to people out there, many have not made those relationships, and even when [the Medicare Advantage hospice carve-in] is upon us.

That’s a very different shift for us. We have lived with the Medicare Hospice Benefit being the primary payer, and we’re seeing that there are shifts in that even now. There will continue to be the benefit, and we are all promoting that. But we also have [the hospice component of the value-based insurance design model (VBID)].

I think certainly keeping our colleagues, our caregivers, energized about their life’s work is a priority. There are more and more challenges coming upon them. We need to recognize and identify what those challenges are, and we really need to make an effort to work with them, so that we can help them continue to be energized.

It means that organizations are going to have to give more. They’re going to have to listen more and understand the needs of the people who are providing our care. That’s absolutely critical for our future. Everybody is facing that as a challenge.

What would you say are the achievements through your career in hospice that you are most proud of?

If I’ve made a contribution to the organization feeling more centered, more balanced and more focused on their mission because I’m their leader that, to me, is an accomplishment that I hold in my heart.

What comes next for you? What else would you like to accomplish?

I’m planning for my retirement in January 2023. There is still work for me to do, and certainly, I’m involved in that with our President Jonathan Fleece, who will then succeed me as CEO.

Focusing on our coming together, making sure that our programming, our services, our colleague base, so much of that is really intact [and that] is where all my energy is going in the next 10 months.

I want to be able to leave here feeling the sense that the organization is very much prepared for the future. I believe it is in a very strong way, but we will work on making it even stronger, knowing that the challenges continue every day.

Companies featured in this article:

, , , , ,