Corner Office: CHI Health CEO Dr. Cliff Robertson on the 2 questions he answers for employees

Cliff Robertson, MD, joined Omaha, Neb.-based CHI Health in 2014. During his tenure, CHI Health has been ranked among IBM Watson Health's 15 top health systems; CHI Health St. Elizabeth in Lincoln, Neb., opened a trauma center; and CHI Health St. Francis in Grand Island, Neb., achieved Magnet recognition from the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Dr. Robertson brings more than two decades of healthcare and private business leadership experience to the roles of CHI Health CEO and senior vice president of operations for Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health's Midwest division. Before joining CHI Health, he was interim CEO of St. Luke's Health System in Houston and COO of Tacoma, Wash.-based CHI Franciscan. He is a family practice physician and earned his medical degree from Ohio State College of Medicine in Columbus. He later earned his MBA from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.  

Here, Dr. Robertson shares with Becker's the questions he answers for employees, his top talent outside the C-suite and the healthcare problem he would eliminate.

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

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?  

Cliff Robertson: When I was in fifth grade, I went to my uncle's medical school graduation, and he took me on a tour through the anatomy lab, where I was fascinated by the human body. From that moment on, I was interested in becoming a doctor. As I progressed through high school and college, I realized that in addition to my love of science, I also wanted to help people. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Omaha?

CR: I grew up in Denver. When I was in high school, Denver always felt like a big, little city. Omaha feels exactly like that. It's an easy place to live, and great people live here. Working with a great team of leaders in a faith-based organization is the icing on the cake.

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

CR: Fee-for-service payments. I think that much of the problem that exists in the healthcare industry in the U.S. today is really tied back to us being paid to do things as opposed to us being paid to manage patients, along with the cost and quality of healthcare. I believe fee-for-service medicine is the poison that's created most of the pathology we experience in the U.S. healthcare system. I believe physicians and health systems should be rewarded for delivering real value through both improved quality and lower actual costs.

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

CR: That's a tough question. I can't sing or play an instrument, but from the time I was a young kid through high school, I skied competitively. I still ski today. In fact, it's one of my favorite things to do. When I'm on skis or playing golf, I can turn my brain off and stop thinking about healthcare, medicine and whatever we may be facing.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?  

CR: I spend a lot of time around people, so I recharge my batteries with quiet time and time spent with family. 

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

PV: I tape weekly video blogs for CHI Health's front-line staff. A sticky note taped to my computer reads, "Where are we going?" and "What does it mean to me?"

Someone along the way in my career shared this advice with me, and it's what I remember most clearly: When you're communicating with any other human being, whether it's your spouse, your co-worker or caregivers that make up your organizations, those are the two things they care about. So, when I tape the videos, I try to frame the information I'm sharing so it might answer those two questions.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at CHI Health so far?  

CR: I don't take credit for anything that's occurred at CHI Health other than staying out of the way of an extremely talented group of leaders. I think the greatest achievement is that as a leadership team, we've retooled CHI Health to be an organization that is leading the way around the delivery of not only the highest quality health care, but also the best value in the market. IBM Watson Health recently named CHI Health a top five large health system in America for 2020. I think that's a testament to the incredible work done by our caregivers and leaders.

Delivering affordable, high quality care is extremely important to me, because as a family doctor, I saw firsthand the waste and/or misuse of healthcare resources. I'm privileged to be part of an organization that's focused both on caring for those that are most underserved and doing it in a way that's of the highest quality. 


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