Corner Office: CEO Dr. Paul Rothman on what a Johns Hopkins founding father taught him about listening

As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Paul Rothman, MD, began to develop his passion for research. In the decades since, his career has been driven by a desire to improve patient care by understanding the causes behind diseases. 

Currently, he's influencing patient care as CEO of Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine and dean of the medical faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

Dr. Rothman took those roles in 2012, in which he oversees six hospitals, hundreds of physicians and a self-funded health plan. 

Before joining Johns Hopkins, he was dean of the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for four years. He also served as head of internal medicine at the medical school.

Dr. Rothman's awards include the James S. McDonnell Foundation Career Development Award, a Pfizer Scholars Award, a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award, a Leukemia Society of America Scholar Award and the Pharmacia Allergy Research Foundation International Award.  

Here, Dr. Rothman answers Becker's Corner Office questions: 

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

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Paul Rothman: As a boy, I was always interested in math and science. I went to MIT to learn the new field of molecular biology in the late 1970s, and while there I fell in love with research. I also discovered I wanted to apply molecular biology to help understand fundamental issues of human disease. Over my career as a researcher, clinician and educator, I have directed my efforts at understanding the pathways involved in the diseases of the patients I saw and how therapeutics might be directed at intervening in these pathways.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Baltimore?

PR: Baltimore is a fantastic city, a wonderful place to live. What I enjoy most about living here is the people. If I had to describe them, I would say that the residents of this city are resilient, hardworking and genuine. Like many large cities, it's not without some serious problems, but there is a real pride, a feeling among the people who live here that this is a special place. It's also very diverse — each neighborhood is a vibrant community unto itself. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

PR: One key issue that I would target: Our healthcare system tends to reward volume of care instead of value. I think it makes more sense for healthcare to prioritize quality of care and successful patient outcomes. If implemented intelligently, this approach can reduce unnecessary treatments, lower costs, and improve health for individual patients as well as for communities overall. Of course, the reality is that we can't do this overnight. But by working to make progress in this area, we can do so much more for our patients. 

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

PR: I was a rower in college and medical school, but those days are long gone. I really enjoyed working in, and running, a basic science lab. The thrill of scientific discovery and the process of trying to understand how new findings might lead to interventions that alter disease was rewarding, and many of the analytic skills and reasoning that were developed in the lab are very useful in the C-suite.  

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

PR: Leading Johns Hopkins Medicine consumes a lot of my time, especially during the current pandemic, and I truly enjoy the challenge that this entails. Spending time with my wife and children is one of my most treasured activities. We have three adult children, and for several months, two of them have been living at home with us. I also enjoy hiking, skiing and golfing. 

Q: What is one piece of advice that you come back to again and again?

PR: [Internist] William Osler, [MD], one of Johns Hopkins' founding fathers and one of the true giants of American medicine, once said, "Listen to your patient. He is telling you the diagnosis." Of course, today we wouldn't say "he," but other than that, I think these two sentences remain enormously valuable and profound. For a healthcare provider, for a leader, for anyone in almost any situation, listening is such an important skill, and one that is often underappreciated. Often it is only by understanding others' views that we can truly move forward. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Johns Hopkins Medicine?

PR: We have spent the last several years focused on transitioning Johns Hopkins Medicine into the digital age. Once we implemented Epic in all our hospitals and outpatient clinics, we focused on building a digital platform to help harness the data to improve care for our patients. This cloud-based platform, called the Precision Medicine Analytic Platform, can integrate many forms of measurement (e.g., lab tests, imaging studies and omics) with Epic to allow us to start to develop tools to more precisely define patient subgroups and those therapeutic interventions that can specifically target these patient populations. We have focused these efforts around particular diseases using Precision Medicine Centers of Excellence, where we can bring value (both better outcomes and less unneeded care) to our patients.


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