Corner Office: Hackensack Meridian Health's CEO on the revitalizing power of cooking

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Robert Garrett is CEO of Edison, N.J.-based Hackensack Meridian Health, an integrated system with 17 hospitals, 500 patient care locations and 35,000 employees. 

Under his leadership, Hackensack Meridian Health has formed unique partnerships to drastically expand and improve healthcare in New Jersey.

Over the last few years, the health system has merged with Carrier Clinic, New Jersey's largest behavioral health provider, partnered with the New York Giants to raise money for pediatric cancer research and established a collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. 

In 2018, thanks to Mr. Garrett's steadfast leadership, the system opened Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hill University, New Jersey's first private medical school in 60 years. 

Here, Mr. Garrett shares with Becker's the healthcare problem he would eliminate overnight, his greatest talent outside of the C-suite and the piece of advice he always carries with him.

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

Question: What is one thing that piqued your interest in healthcare?

Robert Garrett: I was a political science major in undergrad, and I had some familiarity with the healthcare business, but I was on a different track. However, that path changed after I spoke with a family friend, Sister Mary Jean Brady, who was a hospital administrator at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She spoke to me about healthcare and some of the challenges in the industry. I was so intrigued about what she had to say. She also offered me an internship with the facility. During the internship I rotated through major departments and worked directly with Sister Mary Jean to learn about hospital administration. Through the internship, which was a life-changing experience for me, I was able to see what servant leadership was about, how a hospital really works and how they help the community. I was sold after that experience. I never looked back.

Q: What do you enjoy most about New Jersey?

RG: What I love about New Jersey is its diversity and the variety the state provides from a business, social and entertainment perspective. It is a real melting pot of cultures and people. There are great towns, amazing restaurants, mountains and the Jersey shore. In addition, I enjoy the contrast of the urban, suburban and even rural areas. I also live in a small New England-like town that is very charming, and we also have a house on the shore with a beautiful beach and boardwalk.

I also have to say that I love two other things about New Jersey. Specifically, the Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen, who is one of my favorite artists. Additionally, I have to say I am a big New York Giants fan, and they play in New Jersey. Our health network happens to have a partnership with them, and people ask me all of the time if the partnership happened because I am such a big fan. My answer to them is yes. But in all honesty, they've helped us raise upward of $7 million for a cause called Tackle Kids Cancer, which funds pediatric cancer research. 

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

RG: I believe we need to build on the ACA instead of throwing it out. There are many great aspects to it, but the one thing I think needs to be focused on more is prevention. In the U.S. we do a great job at treating diseases, but there is more to be done related to the prevention of illness and improving the well-being of our communities. I think working with the government and incentivizing health systems and insurers to focus on prevention can help improve health outcomes. Prevention is one thing we are really missing as a country. It's disturbing that life expectancy has been on the decline for the last few years, and a main driver is because suicide rates are up and other mental illnesses are prevelent and undertreated. A broader view of prevention would be the industry also focusing on behavioral health. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

RG: Being curious about people and wanting to know what makes them tick and what excites them. I find that curiosity really helps me in and out of the C-suite. I really enjoy meeting different people and really getting to know them. One thing I can say is people really do come from different walks of life, but there are so many commonalities when it comes to their priorities and values. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

RG: One thing that keeps me energized and focused is working out. With my busy schedule, that usually means working out at about 5 or 5:30 in the morning. I have a personal trainer that I work with about three times a week, and I try on my own to do cardio on the other days.

Additionally, once in a while I dabble into cooking. My family sometimes makes fun of me and calls me a one-hit wonder because I make a mean bolognese sauce. Cooking relaxes me, it clears my mind and allows me to be creative. I should probably learn to perfect a few more dishes, though.

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

RG: "Leaders who don't listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say."

My wife sent me that quote, which is from Andy Stanley. I wish I had learned earlier in my career that being a good listener is key to being a leader. I think it's one of the most underrated skills of leadership. Usually when you think of leaders you think of people who are charismatic or dynamic, which is important, but curiosity and listening are equally, if not more, important. 

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

RG: I'm going to give my top two. The first is creating and opening a new medical school, the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. It is the first new medical school in New Jersey in over 60 years. What I am most proud about with the new school is that the curriculum is so innovative that it's changing medical education. For example, every student participates in a community immersion program where they pair up with families in underserved communities during their three or four years of medical education so they understand some of the challenges that those families have in staying healthy, and they can see firsthand how the social determinants play a role in one's health. 

We also have interprofessional academics. The nursing school and allied health program have co-located to the medical school, so that students can learn and understand each other's role on the healthcare team. I think it will be a game changer because research has shown that when these disciplines work together, patient outcomes improve. I am proud of the school and what we've done there. This summer we will be welcoming our third class, and we have close to 6,000 applicants for the 120 slots. It's been a huge success.

The second one is how we've become a leader in behavioral health. We merged with Carrier Clinic, a New Jersey–based behavioral health provider in 2019 and are working to change the landscape in behavioral health.

Last year, we opened a first-of-its kind behavioral health urgent care center so that patients don't have to navigate an emergency department when they need immediate behavioral health services. With the urgent care center, they can be seen within minutes and meet with a psychiatrist via telehealth. This also helps cut the cost of care for patients, as the urgent care clinic is 70 percent less expensive than the ED. We are also building a comprehensive addiction treatment center in the state. A lot of times patients head out of the state to get addiction treatment. We want to reduce that burden of travel. We are also integrating behavioral health into our overall care plans. I am proud to be a leader on this vital front. 

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