'Community health at its best': Dr. Airica Steed's bold goals as MetroHealth's new CEO

Airica Steed, EdD, RN, became president and CEO of MetroHealth on Dec. 5, and she said community health and health equity are among her focuses.

Dr. Steed was selected as the Cleveland-based health system's next president and CEO in September. Dr. Steed, who was executive vice president and system COO of Sinai Chicago Health System, replaces Akram Boutros, MD, who was fired last year. 

Dr. Boutros was fired after MetroHealth board members say that between 2018 and 2022, he set goals for himself, evaluated himself against those goals and authorized more than $1.9 million in supplemental bonuses for himself, without disclosure to the board. Dr. Boutros, who planned to retire at the end of 2022, alleges board retaliation and denies wrongdoing.

Dr. Steed told Becker's Hospital Review she's excited about leading MetroHealth forward. She shared her top priorities for her first year on the job, discussed a few of the top challenges she faces at MetroHealth and offered some advice for her peers.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What has you most excited about your new role as CEO of MetroHealth? 

Dr. Airica Steed: I'm really looking forward to building MetroHealth to not only be a continuous pivotal organization in Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio region, but to be the national model for what health equity looks like and in what community health at its best actually looks like. That is what gets me up in the morning and gets me really fired up in terms of my overall passion around that.

Q: What are a few of your top priorities for your first year at MetroHealth? 

AS: Putting the spotlight on patient-centered clinical excellence. I want to be the best organization possible in delivering high-quality care, high-quality experiences. This is marked by being a five-star organization on CMS' updated Overall Hospital Quality Star Ratings, being assigned an "A" grade by the Leapfrog Group. To do that, I know I have to home in on and start to lift up the people at large that are doing the great work, and that is our front-line heroes. People engagement coupled with clinical excellence goes hand in glove, and working on those various challenges that are pervasive in the industry right now. 

The second area of focus is everything around health equity. I want to be known for a health delivery enterprise that raises the bar and actually was able to eradicate healthcare disparities. To reverse the centuries of lack of accessibility, reverse the centuries of chronic disease that has been pervasive. I want to be known for an organization that expands access to primary and specialty care, that improves life expectancy, no matter where your ZIP code is, or where you come from, or where you live. 

The other focus is innovation. I want to be able to invent new models of care delivery, redefine and reshape how healthcare is delivered. I want to be able to connect with people where they are, and give people a voice where they are. 

And then the last area is everything about the community. MetroHealth is known for being the community's organization. This organization belongs to the community in so many ways. And I want to be able to amplify community engagement and invest back into the community because this is above and beyond health. This is about building up the health of the community as well as investing in that and building up a pipeline, building up different ways of life. As in different investments we can make in entrepreneurship and in vendors and housing. Very bold, very lofty goals. However, I'm extremely confident we can accomplish all of these objectives that we set our minds to.

Q: How is the upheaval surrounding Dr. Boutros' departure affecting health system morale?

AS: The situation that unfolded obviously is extremely unfortunate. Certainly not ideal for any person, any new leader to come into. And to have to have a bold vision for the future, but simultaneously have to navigate through a crisis. I wanted to wrap my arms around the great people within the organization and in the community, and put the light back on the important things that we need to center on. I'm extremely fortunate to have been in a situation where I was able to do that. And I was able to hit the ground sprinting and get engaged at the front-line level, get engaged with the great people who are doing all the great things every single day. And I can honestly tell you that that's the spirit of MetroHealth. And who we are and what we are and what we've always been, and our boldness in the future. People are motivated around what that future looks like. And they haven't been rocked by this, by this drama and by the crisis. So I'm extremely fortunate to be in that position where I can put the value back where it needs to be and put the focus back where it needs to be. And quite frankly, this should not be a distraction and is not a distraction. I see that in the rearview mirror. It occurred, it's unfortunate. We're recognizing and acknowledging that. The board made a very difficult call, a very courageous call, and one that I support wholeheartedly. And it's my role to buckle down and do what's right, so we can do what's right at the end of the day. That's what we're focusing on.

Q: Do you feel there is sufficient transparency between the CEO and board?

AS: I believe that the transparency is at a heightened level, and I have full confidence in the board. I also havefull confidence that the board took the steps to sound the alarms on this Dr. Boutros issue, bring it on a public scale and take the responsibility to put forth the right steps. And certainly we're putting forth the right measures to ensure that we're safeguarding the organization and safeguarding the public that we serve so this doesn't happen again. And I can honestly tell you wholeheartedly that I'm 100 percent separate from this issue. 

We have enlisted an outside third-party auditor to conduct a comprehensive review of the organization. And once the conclusion of that audit has transpired, we are very committed to showcasing what the highlights of that particular audit revealed.

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to other hospital CEOs, what would it be?

AS: As healthcare executives and healthcare leaders, I think we need to work more closely and collaboratively to address and tackle these industry challenges. I don't think that these are individualized efforts. I think the pandemic has certainly showcased and put this on the forefront in a pretty profound way. The only way we're going to be able to navigate through is close-knit collaboration, communication, engagement and working together. Also, be encouraged, because I do believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are certainly navigating through some of the most significant circumstances and the headwinds are strong. But I do believe that we're going to see the light at the end of the day. We need to continue to buckle down, be resilient people leaders and encourage our people along the way.

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