Corner Office: Why University Hospitals' CEO wanted to be like 'Hawkeye' Pierce

Cliff Megerian, MD, serves as CEO of Cleveland-based University Hospitals, and he brings many influences to the role, from books to the TV series M*A*S*H.  

Dr. Megerian, who is also the Jane and Henry Meyer Chief Executive Officer Distinguished Chair, became CEO in February 2021 after being appointed the system's president in December 2019.

As CEO, he leads a health system with 21 hospitals — including five joint ventures — more than 50 health centers and outpatient facilities and more than 200 physician offices in 16 counties, according to University Hospitals' website

Previously, Dr. Megerian served as president of University Hospitals Physician Network, Physician Services and System Institutes. 

He told Becker's he enjoys reading and has drawn wisdom from books throughout his career. He also said the TV series M*A*S*H inspired his healthcare journey, as has influence from other clinicians.

Here, Dr. Megerian answers Becker's seven Corner Office questions.  

Note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

Dr. Cliff Megerian: As a child, I was captivated by the show M*A*S*H. It was a blend of comedy and drama, and it fascinated me to see the quick, innovative thinking of the surgeons and the difference they made in the wounded soldiers' lives. They weren't only taking care of their wounds; the compassion they offered seemed to heal their patients' souls as well as their bodies. 

I wanted to be like "Hawkeye" Pierce, the surgeon played by Alan Alda. I was amazed at what he and the others could do to help soldiers and civilians recover. I still find the show poignant because it is about decent people trying to survive in an intolerable situation.

Another influence on me was when I learned about Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the first successful heart transplant. I began to think it would be a very honorable career to use your hands — your skills — as well as your mind to heal people and turn their lives around.

Then when I came to University Hospitals, I learned that in 1917 a team of nearly 100 doctors and nurses from our hospital — then called Lakeside — deployed the first American military medical unit on European soil during World War I. They created the first field hospital and provided medical care to the Allied soldiers in Europe until January 1919. 

Every one of them was a hero. I felt that my vision and inspiration from M*A*S*H had come full circle.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Northeast Ohio?

CM: What I enjoy most is the people who live here. It's an amazing community that bands together when there is a crisis, as it did during the pandemic. The collaboration among the healthcare providers, the government and people everywhere in the community was extraordinary, especially when you consider how two traditionally fierce competitors — University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic — realized we were "Stronger Together" in addressing our community's needs.

The history of Cleveland really speaks to the resilience of its people. And its culture of giving and spirit of philanthropy is like none I've seen elsewhere. In fact, Cleveland is the home of the world's first community foundation, which was formed in 1914 to improve the lives of those who live in Northeast Ohio, and it remains a force today.

Cleveland also is a powerhouse of medical innovation, technology and discovery. We are a hub that draws some of the world's finest physicians, leaders, researchers and innovators, as well as patients from around the world.

The arts culture here is incredible, as the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the best in the world; so is the Cleveland Museum of Art. And we have the Cleveland Ballet, which is one of the fastest growing ballet companies in the nation. I also love the ease of living in Ohio, the lack of daily traffic congestion, the beauty of the landscape and the park system. We have a championship basketball team, a fabulous baseball team, an iconic NFL team and a pretty great hockey team.

And it is affordable to live here. 

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

CM: One of the root causes of the industry's problems, including access to healthcare, is that it's too expensive. And one of the principal drivers of escalating costs is what we need to eliminate. In my opinion, that is the ever-increasing burden on healthcare from literally dozens of preapproval mandates from insurance companies as well as myriad laws and regulations. 

Over the years, that has increased the costs for healthcare delivery. It makes everything more expensive. And while I agree our industry needs regulation and controls to ensure quality and patient safety, it's become a fragmented patchwork of oversight that frankly is cumbersome and ineffective. We need to look at the totality of the patient journey and ensure these burdensome policies and processes are not impeding our ability to care for people. For example, it's come to the point that a nurse needs to document so much on every single shift. It takes doctors and nurses away from the bedside and the patient and redirects their attention to the computer for documentation. If we could dramatically reduce this, that would be a big step forward.

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

CM: I'm a good listener, and this is helpful personally and professionally. True listening means give and take — it requires curiosity, engagement, dedication and vulnerability. It is critical, especially now, to ensure that you hear from all perspectives, and that people are understood. 

At every point in my career, I have found that active listening is at the heart of serving and leading as it keeps my focus on what is most important: people. To achieve that, you have to create environments and spaces where people feel safe, respected and valued, and one where they feel empowered to share their voice because they know it matters.

I believe that everyone's voice is shaped by their personal story and their perspective, based on their life experiences, so I often ask about those and I find that it deepens any conversation or discussion. As a leader, I strive to genuinely listen to the people we serve, whether a patient, physician, caregiver or team member, and to ensure that all voices are heard, at every level of care.

On an entirely different note, I am an amateur historian and a moderately skilled philatelist.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

CM: I enjoy weightlifting and working out at the gym. When I'm finished, I have a sense of calm and well-being that is very refreshing.

I also enjoy reading, especially books about people in history — right now it's Abraham Lincoln — people who faced large stressors and world-altering challenges and how they managed to get through them. It reminds me that anything is doable with the right attitude and when you surround yourself with the right people. Reading is both therapeutic and informative, and I always find wisdom in these books that still applies today. 

This is why I started the UH Cliff's Notes Book Club, where we meet once a month either virtually or in person. I choose one book to read, and a committee chooses another, and each month we discuss them both.

Absolutely everyone in the system is welcome. It's a way I can engage with caregivers in a more casual, personal way, and we share knowledge, stories and our perspectives on the books, how they relate to our personal lives, healthcare or University Hospitals.  

Another thing that I do, which completely engrosses me, is working on my stamp collection — identifying them, grading them and valuing them. When I do this, it relaxes me. But it also requires the kind of precision and close attention that is necessary as a surgeon, as well as in the position of CEO. I also enjoy spending time with my family and our dogs.  

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

CM: One that is germane and most important is to know that when you reach the highest level of organizational leadership, you are judged less on your technical knowledge and evaluated more on successes that are based on your judgment.

As a surgeon, technical knowledge is very important. But as I assumed the CEO role, it became very clear that because it's not possible to know every single detail all the time, I needed to ensure I had the best and brightest team, empower them and build relationships throughout the organization to share knowledge. This enables me to then make sound and informed decisions.   

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievements at University Hospitals so far? 

CM: We've done a lot of great things, but I'd say it was leading the organization — from the first day I showed up — through an unprecedented pandemic and leading it this year, where we are emerging wonderfully out of the economic tsunami that followed the pandemic.

That is the greatest achievement, getting to this point. True, we are not entirely through it, but morale is good, we are recruiting, turning around some staff challenges, and our philanthropic efforts are fantastic. All of those are evidence that our people are resilient and innovative and that we have the support of our community. 

Together we made it through.

Copyright © 2024 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.


Featured Whitepapers

Featured Webinars