How-To Guide: Becoming the President and CEO of a Medical College

The president and CEO of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) shares his healthcare leadership experience

I was one of those people who knew what I wanted to do from a very early age. Science—specifically biology—appealed to me; as a kid, I was the one who collected bugs, and was eager to dissect frogs and fish to learn more about how they worked. I thought—and still think—that the human body is an amazing machine. That stuck with me, and it’s what drove me to want to go into medicine.

Emergency medicine was always my first love, and I studied it at a time when it was still a fledgling specialty (from a residency perspective)—most doctors in the ER at that time were general surgeons, family practitioners or pediatricians. But I loved the adrenaline of it; prior to attending medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, I volunteered in several emergency rooms. I also did my residency in emergency medicine at Medical Center of Delaware (now a part of Christiana Care Health System), and the diversity of cases thrilled me, as did the need for action.

Become Adaptable

Working in an ER requires constant multitasking, flexibility and the need to function in high-stress situations. The focus is to stabilize the patient by treating acute illness, injury or trauma, but you are also required to make those decisions—sometimes with a life hanging in the balance—with very little information. In those cases, it’s essential that you trust your instincts and what you have learned from your experience and from those around you, to make the best decision possible.

That lesson has served me well throughout my career: I have had many mentors whose philosophies have helped guide me, and I’ve learned that the only constant in life is change. My favorite book, Thriving on Chaos, preaches that you must be prepared for change and transition, and there is perhaps no better place to become acclimated to that than in an emergency room setting.

I believe that the principles I learned practicing ER medicine for nearly 10 years have helped me become more adaptable and more nimble in my career. While I was still practicing, I saw many work-related injuries, and that led me to want to fill the need for a practice that provided comprehensive care for those types of injuries. So, I decided to open an occupational medicine practice, which I led for four years before selling to a venture fund. I stayed on as an occupational physician for two more years.

I adapted again, when I was approached by a friend about a position at U.S. Healthcare/Aetna. It was as a medical network doctor who oversaw physician relations, contracting and the overall quality of the health plan. I had some experience in this area as a practicing physician, and was intrigued to learn more about the world of managed care, so I applied for the job.

Never Stop Learning

This is another lesson I’ve learned during my career: never stop learning. I read everything and look at what other industries are doing to garner ideas. It’s helped me anticipate and plan for the future, instead of reacting to it.

I joined AmeriHealth Caritas Family of Companies, which provides managed care plans for Medicaid patients, and my responsibilities in the field of healthcare management grew; prior to leaving, I was President, Northern Division Pennsylvania Managed Care Plans. But I always felt that the only way to drive real change in improving the health care system was to impact the way our physicians are trained; to focus less on making people better, and more on keeping them healthy in the first place.

So, when I learned of an opening at my alma mater for its president and chief executive officer, I jumped at the opportunity. I had adapted yet again, this time into the world of academia.

I have been with PCOM for more than two years now, and I would say that I’ve transferred my ER skills—the adaptation, the resiliency, the continuous learning—to my position as leader of this institution, and we are starting initiatives that are very unique to a medical school, especially an osteopathic medical school.

For example, our institution is heavily dependent on tuition as a revenue stream—it’s common among most osteopathic schools, in fact. I wanted the college to find alternative streams, so we have adapted to begin investing in companies that are creating products and technologies focused on health care. This helps foster innovation, and our hope is that it will also help doctors provide better care for their patients.

Value Team Work

Here’s one last thing I learned during my time in the ER that has carried through my career: teamwork is essential. Nowhere in the hospital is the multidisciplinary nature of medical care more pronounced than in the ER. Seamless teamwork is critical as is a keen understanding of prioritizing and allocating resources effectively. As a member of that team, you must learn to not only work together but to respect the points of view of those around you; everyone comes to the table with a different skill set, and it’s important to see the learning opportunity in that.

The whole of health care is moving the same way: the model of a team-based approach to health care is rapidly taking hold across all disciplines. As one of my mentors used to say, “If you put your patients first, everything else will fall into place.” To that end, we’re growing our academic offerings to encompass more of that team-based learning; we call that Interprofessional Education. Osteopathic medical students are learning alongside psychology students, who are learning alongside physician assistants—all to prepare them to become competent and caring health practitioners.

I value the education I received both at PCOM as a medical student, and at Penn State University as an undergraduate. But for me, I firmly believe the true crux of my success stems from the experiences I had on my emergency medicine rotation and then as a practicing ER physician. It taught me to adapt, to be prepared for anything, to never stop learning and to always value the team you have around you.

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