Corner Office: Montefiore Medicine CEO Dr. Philip Ozuah on the lesson he learned from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

Growing up in West Africa, Philip Ozuah, MD, PhD, realized that he had a passion for healthcare and helping people. Now, as president and CEO of New York City-based Montefiore Medicine,  he's aligned that passion with meaningful work in what he considers "the greatest city in the world." 

Dr. Ozuah stepped into his current role last November, after serving as president of Montefiore Health System. He also previously served as physician-in-chief of the Children's Hospital at Montefiore and professor and university chairman of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Ozuah earned his medical degree from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, a master's degree in education from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a PhD in educational leadership and administration from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. 

Here, he talks about leading the health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic and how he revitalizes himself as a leader.

Editor's note: Responses are edited lightly for style.  

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Philip Ozuah: As far as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a doctor. Growing up in West Africa, I was drawn to medicine, to relieving suffering and to enhancing the welfare of humanity. That is my calling in my life — from when I started medical school at a very young age — and my career has been even more meaningful and fulfilling than I had envisaged. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about New York City?

PO: I love the Bronx, where I work, and where the Yankees play. I love the Rangers [hockey team], concerts at Madison Square Garden, New York's restaurants, and that special energy that sets New York apart from every other city. Its vibrancy, its cosmopolitanism and its resilience. And in this difficult period for the city and the nation, I really love New York's resilience. There are signs around the city that say, "New York Tough." And it's true. New Yorkers are tough. We're famous for it, and I know this city is going to bounce back even stronger. After all, it is the greatest city in the world. 

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

PO: I would eliminate the maddeningly byzantine, opaque and confusing payment systems. The same doctor or hospital gets paid two dozen different rates for the same procedure depending on the patient. Nobody can make sense of the system — not patients, not doctors, not hospitals. It's not only frustrating; it makes healthcare more disorienting, less accessible and more difficult to manage. 

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

PO: I'd say my greatest talent, which serves me well both inside and outside of work, is the ability to figure people out. I seem to be able to grasp what people are feeling, wanting, needing, what's bothering them and what their aspirations are, whether spoken or unspoken. The key is being totally attentive and listening with all of your senses.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

PO: Family time is sacred and very important. I'm fairly regimented about exercise also. I work out six days a week — and on the seventh day, I try to play golf.

Q: What is one piece of advice that you remember most clearly?

PO: In Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions. The cat responds, "That depends a good deal on where you want to go." When Alice says she doesn't care much, the cat tells her, "Then it doesn't matter which way you go." The lesson is you need to have absolute clarity about your goal, your mission, your destination. This is true in every realm of life, whether you're a leader or just starting out. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Montefiore?

PO: It's all about people. The people to whom we've expanded access to healthcare who might otherwise be without it. The incredible people we've attracted to our institution and who share in our mission and our quest for excellence. The outstanding people within our system who do amazing workday in and day out with an unrivaled passion for making a difference. And the people from within whom we have mentored and developed and promoted into leadership roles. Our achievements at Montefiore are a credit to all of them. It is always about people. 


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