Corner Office: UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan on the beauty of simple problems and complex solutions

Alan Kaplan, MD, is a physician by trade and farmer by hobby. He received his medical degree from Rush University in Chicago before heading up to Rochester, Minn. to complete his residency at the Mayo Clinic. Since becoming CEO of Madison, Wis.-based UW Health in 2016, he divides his time between leading a renowned academic health system and tilling the fields at his nearby farm.

Before coming to UW Health, Dr. Kaplan served as executive vice president and chief clinical information officer at UnityPoint Health in West Des Moines, Iowa, as well as the founder of UnityPoint Clinic. He has also served as vice president and CMO of Naperville, Ill.-based Edward Health Services.

Dr. Kaplan recently took the time to speak with Becker's and answer 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? 

Alan Kaplan: I think it's the simplicity of the mission to improve the health of the patient and communities we serve, yet the complexity of delivering on that mission. As a healthcare leader, navigating that complexity keeps me engaged. 

During my ear, nose and throat residency at the Mayo Clinic, I was moonlighting in an urgent care center. A child was brought in during the middle of the night and he wasn't breathing. The parents said he had asthma and I was able to intervene, get him an airway, treat the asthma and stabilize him before sending him to a pediatric hospital. Afterward, the child did very well and I received letters of gratitude from the parents, but also copies of report cards, letters from him and athletic accomplishments. I just felt a love for this field of medicine. After that, I left my ENT field to pursue a residency in emergency medicine.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Madison?

AK: I had the chance to come up here in 2016 and lead an academic health system, and every day I'm fascinated by the intellectual capital. Our research discovery, educational mission and ability to deliver some of the complex healthcare available in the U.S makes this a fascinating place to work. And Madison is just a great place to live. It's a place where there's a lot of cultural activity and a lot of opportunities to be outdoors.

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

AK: I would say it's a combination of universal coverage and access to care. It's very complex and I don't have the answer on how to get us there, but it's the right goal.

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

AK: My friends and family would say I'm a wannabe farmer. I always had a small garden, even as a little kid, where I would grow vegetables and strawberries. I'm not quite sure where the interest came from, but when I went up to Mayo Clinic my interest in the outdoors just expanded. I enjoy habitat development, such as building tall grass prairies, wetlands and other elements of habitat for wildlife. I enjoy forestry work, and it's not unusual on the weekends to see me on a tractor doing various activities from mowing, tilling ground, spraying or grating. Everything's done on my own property. I have a woodland forestry farm and I also have more of an open prairie farm. I also married into a farm family, so that's helped with this habit of mine.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

AK: Almost always, by getting outdoors and doing those farming activities. I explore everything in the area from the lakefront to the Wisconsin River to driving in the countryside in the Driftless Area, a region in southwest Wisconsin.

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

AK: I can't narrow it down to one piece, but I believe life and lifelong learning is a series of many lessons with lots of advice. When I was an emergency physician, I believed very strongly in helping anyone anywhere for anything, and I never let artificial barriers get in the way of helping people. As I moved through my career I felt my role was not about me, it was about the organization I represented and the people I took care of. I think if there's any one thing in leadership or healthcare that really serves as the guide, number one is to put patients at the center. Sometimes we have very hard decisions to make, but we have to come back to patients as our north star.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at UW Health?

AK: Three things happened in the first year that are worth mentioning. The first is what any new CEO needs to do, which is build credibility and relationships. The harder things we completed include a large joint operation agreement with UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital in Madison — that included a merger of our insurance plans. Their specialists are joining UW Health over the next three years, and we're also implementing revenue sharing of our hospital organization and ambulatory operations. By doing that we're removing some of the competitive barriers that get in the way of helping patients, and that arrangement was a very heavy lifting accomplished by a huge team. Just before I came, the hospitals and academic medical group were integrating to a single entity, so one of my jobs was furthering that integration. After the first year we had our first integrated plan, which is an exciting direction for UW Health and a big accomplishment.

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