From DJ to MD: Jefferson Health CEO Dr. Stephen Klasko talks healthcare revolution and medical music mixes

Stephen K. Klasko, MD, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, can trace his career path far from the realm of healthcare — his first professional title was radio DJ "Little Stevie Kent."

The leader of the 14-hospital system said he'd still be a Philadelphia radio DJ if he hadn't gotten fired. "So I applied to medical school and the admissions director was really excited to admit 'Little Stevie Kent,'" Dr. Klasko said. "What's gotten me from a radio DJ to being a university and health system president is taking a no limits approach."  

This no limits approach is how in five years, Dr. Klasko took Jefferson Health from a three-hospital, $1.8 billion system to a 14-hospital, $5 billion system, with Jefferson University Hospital snagging the No. 16 spot on U.S. News & World Report's Best Hospitals list for 2017-18. 

For Dr. Klasko, an avid Star Trek fan, this approach also extends to addressing healthcare transformation in the form of a science fiction book. We CAN Fix Healthcare, which Dr. Klasko published in 2016 with Gregory P. Shea, PhD, and Michael Hoad, takes insights from interviews with over 100 healthcare experts to imagine how healthcare might look in 2026.

The story is told as a first-hand account from Dr. Klasko, who was present at "the event" in 2016, which changed the future of healthcare, and gave way to 12 principles that disrupted healthcare forever. The book describes "the event" as a conference where invited healthcare leaders are surrounded by a mysterious vapor that allows them to engage in a "blame-free" dialogue, rather than exchanging accusations.

In this way, the book aims to address the healthcare system as a whole through this dialogue, arguing everyone must play a role in transforming the system, from the pharmaceutical industry and physicians to insurers and patients. The book offers multiple perspectives on medical issues — some of the most insightful coming from an alien monk who advises different healthcare players.

"Only when patients have incentives to be a part of the solution will healthcare be more efficient and effective," the monk says. "If you only let the market dictate functionality, it won't do what patients need for an optimistic future, unless patients have a real voice, which they do not."

Each stop in the journey includes an overview of how the industry changed since "the event" and the specific dialogues that led to those changes, providing readers an outline for transformation. Here are a few key takeaways.

1. It's time to challenge the "See one, do one, teach one" philosophy of graduate medical education and use technology to regularly assess physician competency throughout their careers.

2. Medical schools must oust their obsession with rigid multiple-choice tests and fragmented educational periods for physicians. Instead, medical education should be reformed to foster a new breed of physicians who are creative, passionate and flexible, rather than competitive and autonomous.

3. Every healthcare player — physicians, pharmaceutical executives, insurers and patients alike — must recognize their share of the blame for the healthcare system's failure to coordinate patient care. Perhaps most importantly, to improve care coordination, healthcare leaders must work together to see patients as people. This gives patients the power to control their own health.

Beyond these earthly insights, Dr. Klasko lets his inner science fiction fan loose in the book's footnotes, which pair healthcare phenomena with sci-fi words. For example, "Darth" is slang for physicians who go into administration, or "move to the dark side."

And in a nod to DJ Little Stevie Kent, We CAN Fix Healthcare concludes with the "Healthcare Mix for the 'Morrow of Medicine" playlist. The music mix connects classic songs to healthcare themes. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Who's Gonna Take the Blame" illustrates how stakeholders frequently blame each other for issues in healthcare transformation and Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown" highlights how hospital readmissions occur due to a lack of communication between physicians and patients.

The health system leader plans to continue the discussion in a forthcoming book about the future of healthcare called Bless This Mess, available March 1. When he retires, Dr. Klasko said he plans to open "Stevie's Vinyl Emporium and Implantable Health Chips" on Philadelphia's South Street.

Read Dr. Klasko's thoughts about the Amazon, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Berkshire Hathaway venture here.

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