From Midwest to West Coast, Suresh Gunasekaran is making an impact on community healthcare

Suresh Gunasekaran is humble when reflecting on his accomplishments as CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and the senior associate vice president for University of Iowa Health Care. "I don't think it's really about me, frankly," he told Becker's. "I think we've always taken a real team approach at UI Health Care."

On March 1, Mr. Gunasekaran will depart from the Iowa City-based health system he's led since 2018 to join UCSF Health as CEO, a position held by Mark Laret for more than two decades. 

Mr. Gunasekaran spoke openly about the Iowa City-based health system's need to increase capacity and leading several quality enhancement and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. UI Health Care also became one of the first sites for Pfizer's COVID-19 clinical trials, which led to a voluntary staff vaccination rate of 90 percent.

Question: What have been some of your greatest accomplishments at UI Health?

Suresh Gunasekaran: I think the amazing impact that we've had on the community by getting a team of healthcare leaders to move a great organization in a direction that always puts the health and welfare of the state of Iowa first. I think we really, as a team, accepted our role in the state to make sure that patients with the most complex needs are met in a collaborative way. It's really humbling to understand what happens at UI Health Care. There are 99 counties in the state of Iowa. And every single year, patients travel from 99 counties to seek care at UIHC, because there's nowhere else in the state that does what we do.

I think that we are an intentional system that is welcoming to all Iowans, regardless of their ability to pay, that figures out ways to work with their local doctors, and to return them back to their communities, which has been tremendously positive for us. I don't think it's really about me, frankly. I think we've always taken a real team approach at UI Health Care, and it was good to extend that team approach to a statewide approach.

Q: What about your new role at UCSF excites you?

SG: I think that joining an organization that is so deeply committed to the community, a very diverse community across the Bay Area, while also being on the forefront of advances in medicine, is deeply compelling. UCSF has such a strong history that's recognized not just by Nobel Prizes, international awards or NIH funding, but by the impact that [occurs when] you're able to bring that kind of excellence to the community. I think that's what really drew me to UCSF.

Q: What do you anticipate your biggest challenges in your new role to be?

SG: The pandemic is not over, and I think it's been a long pandemic for healthcare workers. Such large numbers of patients have not been able to receive the care that they need. I think this whole moment of 'how do you catch up on the care the community needs? How do you catch up on the health and wellness needs of your staff and workforce?' I think those are probably the biggest challenges.

Q: Have you spoken to your predecessor, Mark Laret? If so, what advice has he given you about your new role?

SG: I have spoken to Mark. He's been very gracious and has been willing to give me a lot of advice, but also help me as things move forward. I think the advice that he gave is to continue to fulfill the pride values of UCSF, to continue to strive for excellence, and to continue to meet the community where they are. I think that a lot of work has been done on diversity, equity, and inclusion at UCSF, but I still think there's a significant amount of work ahead of us to be done in addressing health disparities, and Mark encouraged me to pursue those opportunities with vigor.

Q: You've done a lot of work throughout your tenure in regard to addressing health disparities. What are some of your accomplishments in those areas, and what else do you think needs to be done? 

SG: I think that at UI Health Care, it's been a team effort, and I think these efforts continue. We've had several areas of focus. One is on recruitment. The state of Iowa is very different, and the University of Iowa Health Care is a very unique provider in the state. I think we have really ramped up our recruitment of faculty and staff that better represents the communities that we serve. 

Second, we've worked a lot on team building within our own organization to make sure that everyone's voice is heard, and that folks feel the full impact and are empowered to do what they feel is right for the team and for the patient. 

Third, we have forged numerous community partnerships to meet patients where they are. I think that we've seen this in our vaccination efforts in particular, as we've done outreach to numerous areas to make sure that it's easy for those patients. 

The fourth thing is to make sure that we protect and celebrate the diversity of our own staff. We've focused on making sure that our staff is always treated with respect by our patients, our visitors and our colleagues to ensure that everyone feels safe and secure in a very inclusive environment here. UI Health Care has had a long tradition of excellence in diversity. We have been nationally recognized for the work that we've done to have an LGBTQ+ clinic, for almost a decade now, that provides specialized, customized healthcare services for that community, and we continue to extend the reach of that. Building on those kinds of things has been very meaningful here at UI Health Care.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of leading a health system, and what has been the most challenging?

SG: I think what's been most rewarding is working at UI Health Care and serving the state of Iowa. It's a really special place. I think that we do a lot of really cutting-edge healthcare work. We offer the latest treatments and therapies. We were on the forefront of the clinical trials for the COVID vaccine. There were numerous accomplishments like that. 

What makes us different is that the state relies on us so much. It's remarkably fulfilling to work for an organization that's on an international stage in terms of medical advances, but is very personal and local in terms of what we deliver, in terms of our care, and to be able to walk outside my door and not just hear about the latest advances, but be able to talk to fellow Iowans is really fulfilling. Until you come to Iowa, you can't understand how appreciative the community is, how much we stick together during difficult times. I think the people of Iowa are really quite special, and UIHC plays a pretty unique role in the state. That's been tremendously fulfilling.

In terms of challenges — there were times that I didn't do that great. I think you relive some of those times when you have great goals, but you don't really execute on them. Some of those missed opportunities are things that I think about. In our quest to always put the patients and community first over the course of this pandemic, I could have done a better job of supporting the staff. There were numerous times that I knew the staff was tired. I knew that there were a lot of patients relying on us. I think there were probably some opportunities where I could have done more for the staff. 

Although we provided special compensation, created a mental health hotline, and provided other support, we probably could have done more to give our staff a break from work. We're so humbled by the amazing hard work [our staff] has put in. 

At a certain level, when you reflect on the pandemic, I think every healthcare leader of every healthcare organization probably has that on their list. We wish we could have done more, because this pandemic has been so much harder on healthcare workers than it has been on everyone else. I always think I could do more. I think that that's something that all healthcare leaders need to challenge themselves with as we move forward.

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