The 10 most admired CEOs in healthcare

One of the perks of being a healthcare journalist is the ability to meet, interview and interact with some of the top leaders in the industry. We're continuously impressed with their dedication to the mission of healthcare and their ability to seamlessly protect that mission while dealing with the numerous financial and regulatory challenges that confront their organizations.

As journalists, we're often asked at professional and even social events who we most admire in the industry. It seems everyone wants to know: Who is the best, and who is the worst? Thus, we've compiled a personal list (drawing insight from other Becker's Healthcare editors) of the ten best CEOs in healthcare. Here, we've defined 'best' as those most admired within the industry, who have the most noteworthy accomplishments as well as a personal magnetism. We've listed them in alphabetical order below (ranking these top 10 leaders against one another would be a task even Becker's isn't willing to take on!).

Ruth Brinkley, president and CEO of KentuckyOne Health (Louisville). Ms. Brinkley, an African American and preeminent advocate for women, commands the wheel of KentuckyOne Health. Ms. Brinkley is credited for the successful formation of the KentuckyOne Health system following the 2012 merger of Louisville-based Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's Healthcare and Lexington, Ky.-based Saint Joseph's Health System, but her grit and resiliency as a leader became most evident in her successful inclusion of the University of Louisville as an affiliate of KentuckyOne Health. In the face of the Kentucky attorney general's objection to include U of L and UniversityHospital in the official merger, Ms. Brinkley devised a joint operation agreement between U of L and KentuckyOne that resulted in the creation of a state-wide health system. With an emphasis on increasing access to healthcare in communities removed from the health system's downtown Louisville headquarters, part of Ms. Brinkley's vision is the implementation of technologically oriented solutions across the system, including telemedicine and EMRs.

Dr. Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, MD, president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Cosgrove, the poster child of healthcare, has spearheaded the Cleveland Clinic through numerous achievements since his appointment in 2004. His leadership style and engagement with patient issues is widely recognized, and even led to an offer by President Obama to become the next Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs following its patient wait time scandal this summer, which he declined in order to stay with the Clinic. In 2008, Dr. Cosgrove instituted a same-day appointment policy, a program that has seen great success. Often referred to as the system's "chief transparency officer," Dr. Cosgrove's value of system-wide transparency culminated in the development of the Cleveland Clinic's Outcomes Books, which makes performance outcomes data for its clinical institutes publicly available. In September 2014, the Cleveland Clinic broke ground in the construction of its new, $276 million multidisciplinary Cancer Institute on its main campus. As one central facility, this new building will be home to one of the most robust cancer research and care centers in the country.

Michael J. Dowling, president and CEO of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System (Great Neck, N.Y.). Since diving into his role as president and CEO of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in 2002, Mr. Dowling has led North Shore-LIJ into numerous strategic relationships, with five affiliations or partnerships occurring within the last year alone. Standouts include a partnership with Access Clinical Partners to develop a network of 50 urgent care centers in the New York City area during the next three years, established in October, and the selection of North Shore-LIJ by the Cleveland Clinic Heart & Vascular Institute as an exclusive alliance member for providing heart patients in the New York metropolitan area with greater access to clinical trials and advances in cardiac care. In 2012, North Shore-LIJ and Cablevision System, the region's leading provider of healthcare and communications, launched North Shore-LIJ Health TV, an interactive health channel that offers timely, vital health and wellness information to viewers across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mr. Dowling also has his eye on other care and payment opportunities that span beyond the confines of hospitals. He helped launch system's commercial health plan in 2013. More recently, the health plan partnered with MinuteClinic and added 900-plus sites of care to its network. "I want to be in the health business — not just the illness treatment business," Mr. Dowling told Becker's in 2012. 

Richard J. Gilfillan, MD, president and CEO of CHE Trinity Health (Livonia, Mich.). Dr. Gilfillan took the helm of CHE Trinity as president and CEO in November 2013 following the merger of Newton Square, Pa.-based Catholic Health East and former Trinity Health, which was located in Livonia, Mich. As part of his vision to increase access and the quality of care for the populations CHE Trinity serves, one of Dr. Gilfillan's goals includes having a Medicare Shared Savings Program ACO in each of the system's markets by Jan. 1, 2015. As of May, CHE Trinity has five ACOs, with 11 more applications in process for January 2015. Additionally, CHE Trinity has set a three-year objective to achieve $300 million in savings through merger synergies. Under Dr. Gilfillan's leadership, the Catholic health system has already surpassed its $80 million savings target for this year.

Kevin E. Lofton, MHA, President and CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives (Englewood, Colo.). Mr. Lofton has served on the frontlines of Catholic Health Initiatives as president and CEO since 2003. Under his leadership, the health system has continued to expand its reach across the nation. Most recently, CHI acquired Lufkin, Texas-based Memorial Health System of East Texas, in June 2014, and in 2013 it acquired St. Luke's Episcopal Health System in Houston. The system also issued $1.7 billion in taxable and tax-exempt bonds to fund market expansion, IT infrastructure, insurance products, clinically integrated networks and ACOs. In addition to his accomplishments as CHI's chief leader, Mr. Lofton is also an antiviolence advocate, championing CHI's United Against Violence initiative, a nationwide enterprise committing to combat violence and improve prevention. 

Jeffrey A. Romoff, president and CEO of UPMC (Pittsburgh). Mr. Romoff's seat atop UPMC has positioned the system to achieve great financial improvements and maintain an edge on competitors. Since becoming president of UPMC in 2002 and CEO in 2006, UPMC has seen a significant increase in revenue. During its 2014 fiscal year, total profit grew by 83 percent to $451 million due to gains on investments. UPMC has attracted the attention of the public as well as the city of Pittsburgh due to its exemption from city payroll taxes and its intensely competitive relationship with cross-town rival Pittsburgh-based Highmark. In March 2013, the city of Pittsburgh launched a formal challenge to UPMC's exemption from city payroll taxes, claiming the system fails to fulfill the definition of a purely public charity. The lawsuit was dropped in July after UPMC countered by claiming it has zero employees and filed a federal lawsuit alleging it was unfairly singled out in violation of its due-process rights. Regarding Highmark, UPMC said it will not renew its contract with the insurer after its expiration at the end of this year.

Nancy Schlichting, MBA, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System (Detroit). Ms. Schlichting has been the drumbeat behind Henry Ford Health System since she became president and CEO in 2003. In an unprecedented and rather unconventional move, Ms. Schlichting appointed Gerard van Grinsven, an executive from the Ritz-Carlton Group, to run Henry Ford West Bloomfield, the system's newest hospital, in 2009. Though his appointment caused a stir, Mr. van Grinsven helped the hospital thrive. Ms. Schlichting is also credited with leading Henry Ford Health System through a dramatic financial turnaround and for award-winning patient safety, customer service and diversity initiatives. In September, Ms. Schlichting announced she will retire from her role in December 2016. Oakland, Calif.-based Alameda Health System CEO Wright L. Lassiter will join Henry Ford as president, effective December 2015. Ms. Schlichting handpicked Mr. Lassiter as her eventual successor, which only reinforces her unique talent in recruiting leaders she has endorsed. After all, in addition to leading through the tumult of healthcare reform, Ms. Schlichting is CEO of an organization in the largest U.S. city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. This has challenged HFHS to get creative in its talent recruitment efforts. Ms. Schlichting addressed the issue in an interview with the Detroit Free Press in late February 2014: "So we do our sales job — and we have done very well attracting talent."

Charles W. Sorenson, Jr., MD, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City, Utah). As Intermountain's point man for policy, Dr. Sorenson has implemented a system-wide focus on clinical-process improvement and instilled a drive to deliver high-quality outcomes among his staff. A board certified urologic surgeon, Dr. Sorenson assumed his role as president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare in 2008, before which he served as the system's executive vice president and COO. In addition to his daily responsibilities for overseeing operations of the health system, Dr. Sorenson has preserved an interest in clinical process improvement. He helped create the Intermountain Medical Group, an integrated practice of about 1,300 physicians and clinicians employed in multispecialty clinics throughout Utah, and served as the founding chair of the Medical Group Board from 1994 to 1998. Additionally, under his leadership, Intermountain has implemented a system-wide focus of best clinical practices aimed at producing better measurable outcomes for patients. The cumulative success of these various initiatives earned Intermountain the honor of being mentioned as a model healthcare system by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Glenn D. Steele Jr., MD, PHD, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System (Danville, Pa.). Amid turbulent changes and healthcare reform, Dr. Steele and his leadership of Geisinger Health System also received praise by President Obama for providing the kind of healthcare and vision America needs.  Geisinger Chief Transformation Officer Steven Strongwater, MD, has credited Dr. Steele for setting a tone that encourages innovation. "He is a very clear thinker and has a vision for transforming healthcare, which is patient-centered, value-driven and evidence-based. Those core elements set the direction, and he allows people in the organization to work independently and not be micromanaged," he told Becker's in 2013. "Some of the things we've done — closing care gaps, improving medication adherence, using bundles for chronic disease care — came out of conversations from people sitting around a table trying to innovate." Dr. Steele announced plans to retire next year, but will continue to serve as CEO through June 2015, after which he will continue his work as chairman of Columbia, Md.-based xG Health Solutions. 

Joseph R. Swedish, MHA, president and CEO of WellPoint (Indianapolis). Joseph Swedish's appointment as president and CEO of WellPoint in February 2013 came as a surprise to many in the healthcare industry. Though he was a successful leader of Trinity Health, he didn't have experience at a health insurer. However, Mr. Swedish has since successfully carried out big plans for diversifying WellPoint, proving many who doubted him wrong. "We're not old Blue," Mr. Swedish told The New York Times earlier this year. "If we position ourselves simply as an insurance company, we are going to fail." Sure enough, the insurer made headlines earlier this fall when its California entity, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, struck a joint venture agreement with seven health systems in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They will partner on health services and insurance products that, if all goes as planned, will be priced 10 percent less than those of competitors. In addition to his professional accomplishments, many in the healthcare industry appreciate Mr. Swedish's accessibility and commitment to diversity. One of the first things he did as CEO of Trinity Health was appoint a chief diversity officer, and when he came to WellPoint, he sat down with some of the company's largest shareholders to field their "tough" questions about why he was chosen as CEO over other insurance industry veterans.

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