Corner Office: Marshfield Clinic Health System CEO Dr. Susan Turney on turning a health plan into an integrated health system

When a kindergarten teacher told Susan Turney that women couldn't become doctors, she did not crush the girl's dream. Instead she inspired the youngster to dedicate her life to medicine.

After earning her doctorate of medicine and master's degree in public health from University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Turney completed her residency at Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic/St. Joseph's Hospital and went on to join the staff at Marshfield Clinic. She practiced there for 22 years, also serving as chair of the department of internal medicine and medical director of patient financial services.

In 2004, Dr. Turney became CEO and executive vice president of the Wisconsin Medical Society, and in 2011 she left Wisconsin to lead the Englewood, Co.-based Medical Group Management Association as CEO and president.

Dr. Turney returned to Marshfield in 2014 as the first CEO of the newly formed Marshfield Clinic Health System. She recently took the time to speak with Becker's for our "Corner Office" series.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

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

Dr. Susan Turney: When I was in kindergarten, we were sitting around in a circle and our teacher was asking everyone what they wanted to be when they grew up. I said I want to be a doctor and she quickly said, "Oh no, girls can't be doctors." And I went, "Wow, really?" That just stuck with me and made me want to be a physician even more.

I was motivated by someone telling me "no," telling me I couldn't do something. But once I got the bug and understood what healthcare was all about, about the impact you can have on people's lives when they're at their most vulnerable — that's when I knew I made the right decision, although maybe it was for the wrong reason at the beginning [laughs].

Years later I was working at the emergency room one evening, and I was asked to see someone with a critical medical condition who was probably not going to survive the episode. It turned out it was my kindergarten teacher, the one who said girls couldn't be doctors. So I came full circle and took care of her at the end of her life. She was still alert at that point and absolutely recognized me, and was actually smiling ear-to-ear and saying how proud she was of me.

Q: What do you like most about Marshfield?

ST: I was here for 25 years, left for 10, and now I'm back. I'm very excited to be back in Marshfield because I relish the sense of community in a small town and I'm proud that we provide world-class care to our rural communities. What struck me most, particularly after I left, was that the sense of community translates to what we do every day. We are not simply an entity in the community, we are a major part of the fabric of the community. People are very generous here and eager to help each other. They support us in many volunteer and philanthropic capacities. When you go to the grocery store, church or movie theatre, you tend to know the people there.

We're family oriented, we're small, we're a giving community, and people live our mission — to enrich the lives of others — in their everyday lives.

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

ST: I think one of the key issues that holds back innovation, especially for us in a rural area, is the affordability of care. Although there is innovation taking place, the payers and providers aren't evolving in sync together. As we move from a fee-for-service toward a value-based system, payers aren't really keeping up with the pace of change, but on the other side, providers aren't always quickly embracing the changes either.

Innovation in healthcare is rampant with new technologies, new therapies through precision medicine, personalized medicine and genomic care, but providers aren't always embracing changes. That makes innovation and controlling the cost of care more difficult.

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

ST: My husband raises and trains hunting dogs, and I really love being around the discipline of training dogs and being out in the field with him while he trains. That's really a lot of fun. It's a lot more complicated than people think, so even though I don't possess the talent to train them, I enjoy it tremendously.

It also takes skill to say: I need a break. My brain needs a rest. I've got to do things that are enjoyable. Maybe that's a little different than other people, but I think that's my great skill.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

ST: We always need to find ways to rejuvenate and give our brains a rest and engage with others, talk about things that don't relate to work. For me it's really being with my family, my children, my grandchildren. I love being outdoors, so we do lots of things together like skiing. My daughter and I have also run a marathon together. And I love reading — I read anything and everything.

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

ST: When I was in high school and thinking about being a physician, my dad said I better have something to fall back on. He told me to take classes in shorthand and typing, and I thought, "Really? You have that much confidence in me?" But I realized what he was really telling me was that you better have a plan B,C, D and E because life doesn't always go the way you think it will. You need to learn how to be resilient, agile and nimble, and learn how to pick yourself up and move on.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Marshfield Clinic Health System so far?

ST: This has been a very fascinating journey, but what we're really trying to do is create an integrated system of care. We recently purchased the former St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield, with whom we coexisted and were partners for decades. Now we own and operate that hospital, we're building a new cancer center and hospital in Eau Claire, we're in the process of acquiring another hospital in northern Wisconsin. For a long time our physicians worked in hospitals and provided care within those entities, but we as a system did not have hospitals. We realized that if we were going to meet some of our objectives, not only high-quality care but safe care, we truly had to be an integrated care delivery system. That allows for greater efficiency, coordination and affordability.

Between our clinics, hospitals and health plan, our organization is a three-legged stool. However, I'm also proud of the fact that we not only provide acute and chronic care, but that we're a major research institution and a renowned health plan under one umbrella. I'm proud of helping to bring that together — it makes our future that much more exciting for our staff, patients and communities.

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