Corner Office: Keck Medicine of USC CEO Tom Jackiewicz wants you to remember that the numbers are people

Though Los Angeles-based Keck Medicine of USC is a major academic medical center, CEO Tom Jackiewicz has brought a start-up mentality to his position in an effort to ensure the organization uses its resources to set industry trends, not catch up with them.

Mr. Jackiewicz began his career as an administrator at the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Health System and went on to serve as CFO of the University of California San Diego Health System before becoming COO of Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. He returned to UC San Diego Health System, in 2009 to become CEO. He moved to his current role as the system CEO for Keck Medicine of USC in 2012.

Mr. Jackiewicz earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia in Athens and his master's degree in public health from the New York City-based Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

Mr. Jackiewicz 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?

Tom Jackiewicz: When I started my career at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, I realized I had the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. There aren't a lot of careers where you can really have that impact while also working with really smart and talented people. I saw a tremendous opportunity to do some really positive things. On a personal level, growing up I lived right next door to my grandparents. My grandmother had chronic heart failure and was in and out of the hospital quite a bit. As I spent time in hospitals, I remember seeing the impact those doctors and nurses had on my grandmother's health. I am so grateful for having extra time with her since she was a big influence in my life.

I've always been a naturally curious person and I ask a lot of questions. If I don’t understand something, I will keep questioning until I do. My role is to push the organization to be better every day. In health care, we have to always make it a point to get on the floor, because when you see the patients and the difference you're making it really resonates with you. You realize this is a very special responsibility. It's not like other careers because every day it's about saving lives and improving lives. You never want to get lost in the numbers because those numbers are people and those people are who really make healthcare special.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Los Angeles?

TJ: L.A. is the most optimistic city I've ever been in. It could be the Hollywood part of it, but there's an energy in this city that I just love. Second, this is one of the most diverse cities in the world. When you look at it from a healthcare perspective, L.A. is really a focus group for the world because we have every part of the world represented here. Providing care here is a fantastic way to understand the cultural differences in healthcare and deliver culturally sensitive care.

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

TJ: The disparity in accessing academic medicine-level care. We are the No. 1 hospital transfer center in southern California and we provide complex tertiary and quaternary care to some very, very sick patients. For some of these patients, there is no doubt that earlier intervention could have made a real difference. I'm really optimistic about what's happening on the digital front, because digital technology will connect physicians and patients in the community so serious problems are identified quickly and patients moved to the right level of care as fast as possible. Not only is it going to save lives and provide better outcomes, but it's also going to decrease costs because the earlier we treat complicated patients, the better their outcome and the bigger difference we can make.

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

TJ: The thing I really love to do is connect with people. I've been told I’m a great listener. I enjoy hearing people's stories because I think everyone's life story is interesting, and I gain insights from what people have to say about their world and how they perceive the world around them.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

TJ: I believe travel is extremely important for a CEO. There is so much disruption in healthcare right now, including technological changes, consumerism, the push toward value-based care under the ACA, and state health initiatives. When you're dealing with this many disruptive forces, it's important to spend some time where you can focus clearly and gain new perspectives. Travel allows you to absorb the changes around you and see things differently. Otherwise you come into the office everyday and whether it's a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, the problem looks the same. If you have a chance to be in a new location, sometimes the problems are a lot more solvable. Many of the solutions to our current challenges will come from "out of the box" ideas. I feel travel makes us more open to and accepting of new ideas.

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

TJ: I have been given two pieces of advice that have stayed with me throughout my career. First, my mentor once told me, "never make a decision that you can't read on the front page of the newspaper." If you can't read the decision in the newspaper and feel good about it, it was not the right decision. Also, I use a quote from Jack Welch that I thought was very insightful: "If you're in a meeting with your direct reports and you're the smartest person in the room, you've got real problems."

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Keck Medicine so far?

TJ: I've been here for six and half years and I feel my greatest achievement is still ahead of me. We're an academic medicine start-up, the University bought the hospitals from Tenet in 2009. I accepted the CEO role because I felt it was a once in a lifetime opportunity; to take a for-profit hospital and transform it into a world-class academic medical center. It has been very exciting to come to the second largest city in America and be part of USC. We have grown from a $500 million system to $1.8 billion system over the past six years. While our growth has been spectacular, I am most proud of our improvements in patient experience, organizational culture, and quality. Our efforts were recently rewarded when we receive Nurse Magnet designation. As a start-up, our opportunity is to embrace innovation to tackle future challenges facing healthcare.  

My job is to continually push evolutionary change at a revolutionary pace. To be successful, we need to continue to transform our organization in a fast-changing marketplace while also improving the quality of care and the patient experience. We are well positioned to fill an expanding need for academic medicine in Southern California.

But, when I break it all down, our success is based on our people. Our people like coming to work at Keck Medicine of USC, and it's that fact that is really my greatest achievement so far.

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