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Profiles in Leadership: Top 25 Minority Executives Kimberlydawn Wisdom overcame obstacles; now, she helps her community do the same

By | December 4 th,  2012 | Detroit, emergency medicine, Furst Group, Healthcare, executive, health system, hospital, Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Minority Executives, Modern Healthcare, Top 25 Minority Executives, Blog, Henry Ford Health System, leadership, physician leadership | Add A Comment

 

One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)

 

As a successful physician executive at Henry Ford Health System, Kimberlydawn Wisdom, MD, has attracted the attention of governmental leaders far and wide. Jennifer Granholm, then governor of Michigan, named her as the state surgeon general in 2003, a post she held for eight years. More recently, President Obama appointed her to his Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion and Integrative Public Health. But the path to a medical degree was one that Wisdom had to clear of a number of obstacles.

 

First and foremost was the era in which she grew up, a formidable boulder indeed.

 

“In the 1950s and ‘60s, there wasn’t a plethora of physicians of color,” notes Wisdom, Senior Vice President of Community Health & Equity and Chief Wellness Officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and an assistant professor for the University of Michigan Medical Center. “In my junior year of high school, my guidance counselor said I should choose a profession that was more suited for my race. For her, saying ‘I want to be a doctor’ was like someone saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ She actually did want to ensure my success. But I think her sense was, ‘Let me bring you back down to something that’s manageable and achievable.’ “

 

Yet Wisdom’s mother, who grew up in the small community of Coatesville, Pa., did in fact have an African-American physician. And Wisdom became a caregiver for her mom at home as she dealt with severe migraines.

 

“During my childhood, she spent a lot of time in bed and I was regularly bringing her aspirin or some other type of pain medication,” Wisdom says. “It was very impactful to me as a young child to watch her go through that. But on another level, I could bring her water, I could bring her comfort. That began to ignite this desire to consider how I could care for people long-term.”

 


She was exposed to a wonderful hospital atmosphere from a tonsillectomy as a child, and soon had dolls and bears lined up in shoeboxes around her room, where she would tend to their medical needs. She graduated 20th in her high school class of 600, but her supportive parents weren’t so sure that marrying a young mechanical engineer was the best way to get through medical school. But when she crossed the stage to become an M.D., both her husband and parents celebrated together.

 

“They were all very proud,” she remembers. “It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and a tremendous sense of being thankful, because I couldn’t have done it without the support of family and without a strong spiritual grounding. It took a lot of prayer. I beat the odds in many respects.”

 

Despite her challenges, Wisdom says she had an idyllic childhood growing up in Mystic, Conn., the town made semi-famous by Julia Roberts’ first movie, “Mystic Pizza.” Those experiences, she says, have shaped her career as she sought to give her patients and her community the opportunities she was afforded.

 

“In part, I wanted to create a Mystic for the community in which I practiced, so they would have a safe place to grow up. So families could thrive. So people could reach their maximum potential, because they had a place where they felt they could achieve all that they were expected to achieve.”

 

But Wisdom has spent more than 30 years in Detroit at Henry Ford Health System – more than 20 as an emergency room physician – and she readily acknowledges that Detroit is worlds away from Mystic. As she saw the issues confronting her patients – violence, diabetes, obesity, teen pregnancy – she determined to take healthcare to them and not wait for them to come to her. Today, such goals are commonplace in any metro hospital, but back then her ideas were seen as unorthodox. Nonetheless, her bosses at Henry Ford told her to go for it.

 

“As an emergency medicine physician, the community comes to you in various states of disarray. I thought that, if I could go out and meet them where they are, I could have a greater impact,” she says. “When I look at many communities, so many people have not had the ability to realize their potential because they have made choices based on the choices they had available, not based on the best choices that would be ideal for them at any given time.”

 

So Wisdom started small, taking physicians, nurses and social workers out into the community, setting up shop in a community center or a faith-based organization. With each endeavor, Wisdom received more funding as she slowly and quietly attempted to address health disparities in the African-American community.

 

She and the health system now have major grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address child obesity reduction. Several foundations fund her work in attempting to reduce infant mortality in the Detroit area, a region that has one of the highest rates in the country. A faith-based program she designed received funding from the National Institutes of Health, and she serves on the president’s group that advises his cabinet regarding the National Prevention Strategy, a wellness initiative created by U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

 

The Ford system recently earned the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, one of the highest honors for any industry, in terms of service excellence, and has established the Wellness Center of Excellence, called “Henry Ford LiveWell” for short, that focuses on preventative and lifestyle health.

 

It’s a long way from dolls in shoeboxes, but Wisdom says that, if anything, her passion and excitement for healthcare have grown.

 

“Empowering people,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Profiles in Leadership: Top 25 Minority Executives The undercover exec: Wright Lassiter III scoped out his hospital before he took the job, then forged a bond with his board to stage a remarkable turn

By | September 11 th,  2012 | board, Furst Group, Healthcare, executive, Minority Executives, Modern Healthcare, patient safety, Alameda County Medical Center, Blog, CEO, directors, leadership, Top 25, Wright Lassiter III, quality, trustee | Add A Comment

Lassiter

 

One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)

 

Back in 2005, before Wright Lassiter III interviewed for the position of CEO at the then-beleaguered Alameda County Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., he decided to see for himself if there were some signals of hope in an institution that had seen 10 CEOs crash and burn in the previous 11 years.

 

“I flew in the afternoon before and grabbed a taxi over to the hospital,” he says. “I was in street clothes; I wasn’t in a suit. No one knew who I was. I walked into the ER waiting room and then walked the hallways. I wanted to get a sense of how the staff functioned; to see if people might help you find your way.”

 

What he found surprised him, especially for an organization with such a troubled recent past. Everyone he encountered was consistently courteous and helpful to him as a visitor, and to patients.

 

“There wasn’t one interaction that was negative,” Lassiter remembers. “The people doing the work in the trenches serving the community were doing the best they could.”

 

That, Lassiter says, gave him some hope that the health system could be turned around with the right moves. It also helped persuade him to give up a solid, comfortable position at JPS Health Network in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where he was senior vice president of operations.

 

Fast-forward a few years and the work that Lassiter has accomplished earned him a glowing write-up in Fast Company magazine, a spotlight that brought him national attention as well as some good-natured ribbing from his peers, he adds.

 

But to Lassiter, none of it would have happened without the backing of his board of trustees, a source of strength that is sometimes overlooked in the business world, he says.

 

“Two board members who served on the search committee that selected me are a large part of the reason why I considered the job in the first place,” Lassiter says. “They were instrumental in the turnaround. I think it’s important for CEOs to partner with their boards to drive change.”

 


It was the board’s backing that enabled him, he says, to press forward with an aggressive plan to reduce errors and champion quality and patient safety.

 

“I generally take my board members to health care conferences to help them understand the nuances of what’s being presented,” he says. “But I purposely did not go with my vice chair when he attended an IHI conference on quality because I didn’t want to influence him. He went with our chief medical officer instead. When he came back, he told me, ‘OK, Wright, I get it. I am scared out of my mind, but we have to do this.’ ”

 

The leaders at Alameda County Medical Center presented a plan for “harm reduction” and, in 18 months, reduced incidents of harm by 48.5 percent across the system.

 

“People get uncomfortable with the word ‘harm,’ but the board agreed that it was the correct word to use. The groundbreaking report “To err is human” found that harm was happening in hospitals and we were willing to acknowledge that a problem existed,” Lassiter says bluntly. “Our work drew glowing comments from the Joint Commission and Donald Berwick, a member of the original committee that published the report on errors. That’s what happens when you educate a board well and then engage them.”

 

Healthcare and leadership are part of Lassiter’s heritage. His mother is a nurse, and his father is chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. What he’s learned from them, and from his career, is that a critical factor in leadership is simply courage, like the move he made in accepting the Alameda position. “That doesn’t mean blind courage,” he notes, “or taking risks that are inappropriate. But when the lights are off and you don’t know what’s around the corner, you have to lead with courage.”

 

Closely aligned with courage, he says, are transparent communication and flexibility. “Communication is especially important with the medical staff,” Lassiter notes. “You tell them, ‘Here is our plan, and we will keep communicating with you all the way through this process.’ ” It’s a reason why he still takes part in new employee orientations, he says.

 

Flexibility is based in honesty, Lassiter says. “You have to do your planning with flexibility. You can plan so that you have a baseline for your actions as an organization, but you have to be willing to be flexible if conditions change.”

 

And as conditions change within the healthcare industry itself, he says, building a leadership team requires flexible people. “Healthcare is a relationship business, and I’m always looking for folks who can foster, build and maintain strong relationships. It takes perseverance too. You can’t be dissuaded easily by problems or challenges.”

 

At Alameda, the challenges have been formidable, but Lassiter and his team have stepped up to the task, stopping seven-figure financial losses and building a new facility while dealing with all the issues that come with being a safety-net hospital.

 

“When I talk to our people, I say, ‘Think of your loved ones and put their faces on the patients and families you’re caring for.’ When you approach your work with this in mind, you will do all you can to provide excellent service.”

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