One in a series of profiles of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare (sponsored by Furst Group)
As a young man growing up in Texas, Samuel Ross says he wanted to be “the black Marcus Welby,” a family physician who returned to his hometown and found great success, just like the ‘70s TV doctor portrayed by Robert Young.
While Ross did indeed become a family physician in private practice, real life had different plans for him. He eventually served as chief medical officer, among other jobs, at Parkland Hospital & Health System in Dallas before becoming CEO of the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System. He also oversees Bon Secours’ Kentucky facilities and its system-wide Supply Chain.
And, far from the middle-class patients Welby tended to, Ross’ experiences in the poor neighborhood surrounding Bon Secours sometimes have less to do with the medicine he studied, and more to do with population health. In the last twenty years, including time under Ross’ watch, Bon Secours has built apartment buildings for seniors and opened a banking center for the community. They don’t teach much about that in medical school.
“These ideas came from the community,” noted Ross. “I’ve been influenced by the concept of Community-Oriented Primary Care that came out of South Africa by Dr. Sidney Kark. He built a number of facilities with the notion of one-stop shopping for the poor related to social determinants.”
Bon Secours was on the brink of closing a couple years ago. Its safety net for the poor was fraying badly as residents without insurance comprised a disproportionate amount of the patients. In fact, Ross determined that 50 patients alone accounted for 2,287 visits in a three-year period.
The state of Maryland came through with funding to right the ship, and Ross and his organization have done the rest. Ross is putting a focus on patient safety and quality and has announced plans to hire more physicians and other staff to develop a “primary care medical home.” Bon Secours has invested many dollars and a lot of hours in the community. “This is about the charism of the Sisters of Bon Secours to extend healing and compassion and liberation,” Ross said. But Ross is far from done and is determined that Bon Secours make a lasting impression, because the hospital – and West Baltimore – have been down this road before.
“A lot of people and foundations and government agencies have come in before and tried to make things better for the community,” Ross said. “But when the money runs out and the programs go away, a lack of trust develops in the community. We need to be partners working with them, not doing it for them.”
The needs are great in Baltimore, where the Sisters of Bon Secours came more than a century ago to begin to care for the sick. A study by the city of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins determined that life expectancy for a resident of West Baltimore is 20 years less than someone who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Roland Park.
“That’s unacceptable,” Ross said.
So Bon Secours went to the neighborhood and asked the residents what their needs were. The response wasn’t what the hospital expected.
“Getting rid of rats and trash – that’s what people said was important,” Ross related. “There were a lot of vacant houses where those things were a problem for the whole neighborhood. So we helped the community get rid of those houses and build community gardens. Housing was a major concern too, and that’s where the senior apartments came from.”
Ross hopes he and his staff have learned from their own and previous generations’ mistakes.
“Oftentimes, we go in to the community with our statistics and say, ‘Here’s what the stats say your problems are.’ But the people don’t always agree. You can talk about heart disease and diabetes all you want, but first you have to get rid of the rats and trash.”
Yet in the boardroom and in the community, Ross says he draws many lessons from his days as a family physician – he was a solo practitioner for five years before friends at Parkland convinced him to create a primary care clinic.
“The life of a family physician is really about right relationships,” Ross said. “It’s through those relationships that opportunities and success come. You can’t accomplish anything alone. Communication is critical, especially when you’re trying to impact an organization and a community.”
Ross says he was an accidental leader at first, but has grown to embrace the role.
“I didn’t want to become an administrator,” he said. “People saw leadership things in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself. But administrators and clinicians do speak a different language, and I saw that as a physician leader I had the ability to translate for them. I was able to discern the interests of both sides.”
The obstacles Ross has faced in Baltimore are a long way from the made-for-TV crises that Marcus Welby faced each week, but Ross sounds a bit like his hero as he assesses the challenges, not only in Baltimore but in the industry as a whole.
“I’ve heard it said that leadership is optimism beyond the available data,” he said. “If you look at the situation here in the U.S. with all the uncertainty around healthcare reform, you could become paralyzed in the face of the facts. But if you’re doing the right things with patients and their families in mind, you should be in a good position to adapt to whatever comes along.”