Corner Office: Cook County Health and Hospitals System CEO Dr. John Jay Shannon on the importance of strong teams

John Jay Shannon, MD, knows that for every patient to receive the best care possible, excellence starts with the executive team.

Dr. Shannon became CEO of Chicago-based Cook County Health and Hospitals System, one of the country's largest public healthcare systems, in 2014. Since, he has built a team from the ground up to help address health disparities in Chicago, where a change in zip code could mean a 15-year difference in life expectancy.

Dr. Shannon spent his early years as a clinician at Dallas-based University of Texas Southwestern Affiliated Hospitals and University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor before coming to Chicago's John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital in 1990. He rose through the ranks to become associate chair of the Department of Medicine and chief of the Divisions of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Stroger before leaving to become executive vice president and CMO of Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas. Dr. Shannon returned to CCHHS in 2013 as chief of clinical integration before becoming CEO one year later.

Dr. Shannon earned a bachelor's degree from Mobile-Ala.-based Spring Hill College and a medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago. He recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

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

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

Dr. John Jay Shannon: Growing up, I admired my family doctor — who was a great guy — and my mom, who was a nurse for many years. She was kind of the primary breadwinner for a period of time when my dad's health was not good, so I was exposed to two great role models. As I was going through my education, I loved the sciences and the humanities. Between my educational interests and my role models, and the joy they took in their work — those were the things that got me interested in healthcare.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Chicago?

JS: I was raised in Chicago, I didn't get to pick it [laughs]. What I love most about Chicago is that it's a great city, very diverse, with excellent venues if you're interested in the arts, particularly music and theater, which I am. It's also a great place to eat. But the main reason I love Chicago is that most of my family is here and it's easy for me to spend time with them. I'm one of twelve, and all but two of my siblings live in the Chicago area, so it's easy to get together.

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

JS: I think I'd like to eliminate two of them, and the first would be the complexity and myriad number of quality measures that health systems are required to report. The number is too big, and there are too few of them that have a firm basis in evidence. The amount of effort spent by healthcare systems to collect the information and report it draws away energy that can be better spent elsewhere.

The second one I'd love to see improved is the burden of EHR documentation on clinicians. The amount of time required every day for busy clinicians is way too much, and it's taking time away from seeing patients. While there have been wonderful advances because of the EHR, those advances have not been in the quality of life for practicing doctors and nurses.

Almost everyone, whether you're busy in the clinics or hospital, knows the routine of going home, having dinner, tucking in the kids and then finishing your documentation for the day because of the inefficiency in EHRs.

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

JS: My wife would say it's cleaning the garage [laughs]. I serve on a couple of boards outside the health system, including the board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and I also recently joined the board of my alma mater, Spring Hill College. I enjoy that time because it gives me an opportunity to be engaged, meet interesting and energetic people, and do a little giving back.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

JS: I've got a big family, and my wife and I have three adult kids. One of them is married and we've got a grandson, so we spend a lot of time with our family. I also like to bicycle on the weekends. I like to go for long bike rides, and my favorite ride is in southwest Michigan, where we've got a getaway. I took a nice 45-mile ride last Sunday. It's a good way to get the cobwebs out.

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

JS: One thing we're taught in medical school that stuck with me is called Hickam's dictum. It's the counterpoint to the teaching in medical school that says you should try and make everything tie up into one diagnosis. Hickam was an internist in the mid-1900s and Hickam's dictum is, "The patient can have as many diseases as she damn well pleases."

I think of that a lot because most of the challenges I face, and our organization faces, are complex. They don't have simple solutions, and they usually require you to think of a number of different causes and because of that a number of different solutions. I thought about that in patient care, and it's helped hone the way I approach problems in healthcare leadership.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Cook County Hospital and Health System so far?

JS: The thing I'm most proud of is the group of leaders we've been able to recruit to the system to help us move forward as an organization. In the four years I've been CEO, we've gotten an all new leadership team. They're very effective, very smart and they've helped me organize the different parts of our system to effectively address the health disparities and inequities in Cook County. We are currently the largest provider of care to the uninsured in Cook County, and we are running a very large Medicaid health plan that's allowed us to extend our public health impact. We wouldn't be able to do that if we didn't have talented leaders in our organization.

As a critical care doctor, what I used to do was assess the patient's problem and assemble the team of clinicians necessary to get the patient better. That's very, very similar to running the health system. You have multiple complex problems, and you need to have a team to be able to address them effectively. That's what I'm most proud of.

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