Healthcare may see a 'Great Retirement,' too

Numerous health systems are down to their final months with the same CEO who led the organization through a tumultuous decade for the industry.

CEOs of several of the largest or most prominent health systems in the country announced plans to retire within the next year. Some of their tenures span well beyond the average, which is about five years for a hospital CEO, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives. 

  • Lloyd Dean, CEO of 140-hospital CommonSpirit Health, will retire in summer 2022. Including his 19 years at Dignity Health before it merged to form CommonSpirit, Mr. Dean has spent 22 years at the helm. Dignity merged with Catholic Health Initiatives to form $30 billion CommonSpirit in February 2019.
  • Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health, will retire in March 2022. She has been with the system 43 years, 17 of them as the system's first female CEO. 
  • Stephen Klasko, MD, will retire Dec. 31 after eight years as CEO of Jefferson Health. Since he joined the organization in 2013, the Philadelphia-based system has expanded from three hospitals to 18 and annual revenue has grown from $1.5 billion to upward of $6.7 billion.
  • Jim Hinton, CEO of Baylor Scott & White, will also retire by year's end. He has led the largest nonprofit health system in Texas since 2017. 
  • Penny Wheeler, MD, the first physician and woman to lead Minneapolis-based Allina Health as CEO, will retire at the end of the year after seven years in the role. 

A bump in executive turnover is to be expected as the pandemic settles down. More executives stayed with their organizations throughout 2020, a career-defining year, according to ACHE

Nonetheless, these organizations and the industry will bid adieu to a generation of executives who led their health systems through numerous milestones and headwinds, including input and compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the move from paper to digital records and major mergers and labor strikes. Since 2020, they have been the top decision-makers as their organizations met the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. They set the tone and had final say in how forcefully their institutions condemned racism and what actions they took to fight health inequities. 

As the above institutions, and others still, prepare for a new CEO, it's worth reflecting on what the role means in the grand scheme of things. Many Americans may carry on daily life with little awareness as to who, precisely, is at the top of their local hospital or health system. The past 19 months challenged that status quo, throwing hospital leaders and executives into the limelight as many Americans sought leadership, expertise, scientific evidence and local voices to make sense of what, in many cases, felt unsensible. The general public saw hospital CEOs' faces, heard their voices and read their words more within the past year-plus than ever. 

This time in the limelight wasn't always comfortable or celebrated. The very opposite, in fact. Championing science or public health measures also resulted in unusually intense discord at times, with protesters showing up at CEOs' homes or confronting them in parking lots. One health system CEO told Becker's that amid a workforce vaccination effort, protesters camped out in front of his home for 10 days, requiring police intervention and monitoring. Health system CEOs have traditionally aimed to be as apolitical as their jobs allowed, even forgoing campaign donations to maintain neutrality and avoid division. Today, every decision a health system CEO makes stands to have a political interpretation, with acclamation or backlash to follow. 

To inherit or assume the role of health system CEO today comes with a different job description than it did when the aforementioned outgoing leaders assumed their posts. Incoming leaders will assume great responsibility in addition to a fragile workforce that may be more susceptible in this moment to any slight change in communication, transparency or security. 

For as much as the American workforce is recognizing the Great Resignation, it’s worth acknowledging the number of influential leaders who may add up over time to amount to the Great Retirement in healthcare. Careers are made of highs and lows, and each of the leaders above would point to their own if asked. With the average tenure being five years, this outgoing generation of leaders deserves attention for the time, energy and commitment they gave to healthcare. 

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