12 health system CEOs on what drew them to healthcare

People who become CEOs have demonstrably strong leadership skills, tenacity and drive. But what is it that drives people to lead hospitals and health systems?

Here, Becker's compiled responses from CEO participants in the Corner Office series, in which hospital and health system CEO's explained what first piqued their interest in healthcare.

1. David T. Feinberg, MD, President and CEO of Geisinger (Danville, Pa.)
"Being able to connect with people."

2. Ramanathan "Ram" Raju, MD, Former President and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals
"I came into healthcare by default. I wanted to be an architect, but growing up in India, parents dictate what career one chooses. My dad wanted me to become a doctor.

I no longer practice surgery, because as a surgeon operating on patients, you must be available to them at all times. It is important that you're not just there part-time. It's full-time or nothing."

3. William P. Thompson, President and CEO of SSM Health (St. Louis)
"I was fortunate to find an Explorer Post, a career training program provided by Boy Scouts, that was sponsored by our local hospital when I was in high school. The hospital administrator was the post leader and provided us the opportunity to interact with all aspects of patient care. The physicians and staff of the hospital were very generous with their time, giving tours and providing talks about all aspects of patient care and hospital operations. Up to that point, I was totally unaware of how rewarding a career in healthcare could be, and it opened my eyes to the fact that there were opportunities to serve, aside from clinical care."

4. Michael J. Dowling, President and CEO of Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.)
"I think it was my family situation. My mother was deaf and my father suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and, at a relatively young age, was unable to work anymore. I think from that young age I had a strong interest in health and human services. That family circumstance was what got me interested in the field, and it continued to expand over time."

5. Charles W. Sorenson, MD, Former President and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City)
"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a physician. My dad was an internist. He worked long hours, but absolutely never complained about them, and it was easy to see how much he cared about his patients. And I knew they were grateful to him. Not infrequently they'd stop by our house and drop off some fruit or vegetables from their garden or some freshly caught fish. 

I was attracted to medicine because of the way it combined science, which I really loved, with the opportunity to make such an immediate and meaningful difference in the lives of people. It also appealed to me because the road to expertise in medicine was long and hard.

I never aspired to hold a healthcare leadership position. But over the years, I came to see the great opportunities we have for making healthcare better on a large scale, and recognized the critical importance of having experienced clinicians help shape the future of medicine."

6. John Bishop, CEO of Long Beach (Calif.) Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children's & Women's Hospital Long Beach and Community Hospital Long Beach "My dad was in healthcare. He was president of Allergan Pharmaceuticals and Medical Optics. By my third year at Ernst & Young, 100 percent of my clients were in healthcare. So I was able to see all aspects of healthcare delivery and how they related to each other — from health systems, hospitals and medical groups to HMOs, PPOs and medical foundations. I was also able to see the tremendous impact that healthcare organizations can make in the lives of the communities they serve and I felt drawn in by that atmosphere."

7. Darlene Stromstad, President and CEO of Waterbury (Conn.) Hospital and the Greater Waterbury Health Network
"Healthcare was not my first career, but I became really interested in it because of its complexity. Healthcare is such a fascinating and complicated industry, yet it is so meaningful in its simplest form — taking care of patients."

8. John Chessare, MD, President and CEO of Greater Baltimore Medical Center HealthCare System
"I was your typical 18-year-old in 1970 — I wanted to save the world. I had initially been thinking about a career in foreign service, but the summer before I went to Boston College as a freshman I decided I wanted to help people by becoming a physician. I thought it would be a great way to spend my life."

9. Gary S. Kaplan, MD, Chairman and CEO of Virginia Mason Health System (Seattle)
"I grew up working in my father's hardware store. I really enjoyed talking to customers and relating to people. When I was a teenager, one of our customers — a primary care physician — offered to take me on rounds at the hospital where he worked. From there, I really fell in love with the profession of medicine and the opportunity to interact with people and help them during their most vulnerable moments. It's a real privilege for patients to let us into their lives during those personal times. Every day I am inspired by our patients as well as our team members who work continuously to improve the patient experience, quality and safety of our hospital."

10. Susan Ehrlich, MD, CEO of the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center
"I was basically born into healthcare — I'm a third generation physician. My father was an epidemiologist and his father was a general internist. So I have that family connection to healthcare.

In college I became interested in health policy. I was part of the North Carolina Student Rural Health Coalition and studied farm worker health at Duke University. In the field, I studied farm worker exposure to pesticides and the effects on their health. That was my first job in healthcare."

11. Mike Murphy, CEO of Sharp HealthCare (San Diego)
"Healthcare was not part of my original plan. My education was in accounting. I worked in public accounting for about 14 years. In that time, I became exposed to a number of healthcare clients, and I found the financial challenges and intricacies of the industry extremely intriguing. But most of all, I was drawn to the purpose and the special people who work in healthcare. So eventually I moved into finance at Sharp. My first role with the health system was CFO at one of our hospitals back in 1991."

12. Halee Fischer-Wright, MD, President and CEO of MGMA (Englewood, Colo.)
"Most of my interest in healthcare started when my dad began having health issues. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was in high school. While I was a kid I thought about being a doctor, but when he was diagnosed it really propelled me into thinking about how we could do things better in healthcare. The only thing I could think of is getting involved in the solution. That is reinforced for me all the time."

Note: Dr. Raju and Dr. Sorenson retired from their respective roles in 2016. 

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