Lurie Children's new CEO Dr. Thomas Shanley: We're starting to see the consequences of ignoring pediatrics

Ann and Robert Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago welcomed Tom Shanley, MD, to the role of president and CEO in December, after longtime leader Patrick Magoon retired.

A Chicago native dedicated to improving pediatric health outcomes in his community, Dr. Shanley told Becker's he was thrilled to take on the role. "It's been an extraordinary privilege to be given this leadership role for an institution that is so fundamentally critical to the city and to the future of the state," he said.

Dr. Shanley is a pediatric intensive care physician and researcher by background and spent the last four years leading the Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute at Lurie Children's and serving as chairman of pediatrics at the Chicago-based Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Before joining Lurie Children's in 2015, Dr. Shanley was a professor at University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, where he also served as associate dean for clinical and translational research and the director of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research.  

Becker's caught up with Dr. Shanley to hear about the transition and his vision for the organization in 2020. Here are the highlights from the conversation, including Mr. Magoon's parting advice, how the medical center plans to work with state and local government, and the surprising thing Dr. Shanley says is healthcare's most frustrating issue.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and style. 

Question: You're taking the reins from Patrick Magoon, who was president and CEO of Lurie Children's for 22 years. Did he offer you any parting advice?

Dr. Tom Shanley: There were three things he really wanted to instill in me. The first, which I deeply appreciated, was to be yourself. He wanted me to be authentic to myself and continue the approach to leadership that I've taken at the department level and the research enterprise level. As a clinician, scientist and someone who focuses on delivering outcomes — being a data-driven, self-proclaimed nerd — he thought those were really important components for the organization. No. 2 was to really rely on the tremendous team, the hospital leadership team and our board. We're so extraordinarily privileged to have amazing talent amalgamated on our medical center board. And lastly, he said, "Just lead from your heart." I take great solace in that statement. In the four years that I've been back here, the affection that I've developed for the institution and the key responsibility I see Lurie Children's fulfilling for the city and the state are just so important for our future.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge that lies ahead for Lurie Children's?

TS: Well, I think there's a few. Let me first say Lurie Children's, for over 130 years, has always stood by the principle of caring for any child that walks through our doors, regardless of their ability to pay, and we will continue to do that. Nearly 60 percent of our beds, at any point in time, are occupied by a child on Medicaid. In addition to that clinical care mission, we are extraordinarily unique, one of very few freestanding, research-intensive, academic pediatric medical centers in the country. We're responsible for teaching the vast majority of pediatric subspecialists who do their fellowship here. Our research transforms how we understand and treat pediatric diseases. We continue to play an advocacy role to transform the health of the communities where kids live. To sustain that platform means we need to work with our payers and Medicaid legislators to ensure we continue to get a fair level of reimbursement that covers the cost of the care we provide and these other missions, which are critical. As external pressures continue to evolve, that's one of the areas we will continue to focus on.

We also have among the nation's best physicians and teams here at Lurie Children's and we're extraordinarily proud. We are very proud of how people rank their experiences in terms of compassion. But the one area I would say we lag behind in is our ability to connect with families in this era of digitalization. Making sure we're convenient, in terms of access to our subspecialists and our advice, is critical.

The last big challenge in this is hard work. Our people are our greatest asset and also our greatest risk. The challenges in the healthcare industry and margin pressures drive a lot of burnout across the entire workforce. One of our key goals relates to being an employer of choice for our people and taking care of them. 

Q: Can you tell me more about that?

TS: We're planning a series of institutionwide initiatives that will address competencies in three key areas, one around change management, because after all, as we started the conversation, you know Pat was here for 22 years and now there's a change of leadership. We need to continue to embrace change in everything we do because that's what the industry will continue to demand of us. The other two competencies that are going to be critical to the organization's success in the future are being a high-reliability organization, and the other one relates to diversity and inclusion. We recently hired a vice president for diversity and inclusion, Adeola Oduwole. It's an important component of our future; we must ensure our staff are sensitive to making sure we drive for diversity and that we create that culture of inclusion, so everyone's perspective advances what we do and everyone's perspective is respected when we do that.

Q: Are there any partnerships or collaborations that you've got your eye on?

TS: It's exciting for me to step into this new role when there's new civic leadership. I've had the privilege of meeting with [Illinois] Gov. Pritzker and the first lady, and I am extremely excited about his platform on childhood education and well-being as an area of investment for the future of the state of Illinois. Similarly, with [Chicago] Mayor Lori Lightfoot stepping in, I am excited to see her platform on advancing mental and behavioral health.

One of the things I find reassuring is that although these are four-year term-focused politicians, they are not thinking that way. I think they're thinking long term, for what's best for the city and the state. Lurie's is definitely committed to thinking long term with them, because nothing could be more important than the investment in our children for the future success of the city and the state.

The other key partner, as we think about moving forward, is the primary care pediatric community. We still believe the most important medical home for children is their primary care pediatrician. We want to continue to support that model in every way we can, in terms of bringing further opportunities to manage certain diseases and challenges within the primary care setting. We'll be opening up a new site in Skokie next summer, where we're positioning primary care pediatrics alongside our pediatric subspecialists, so we can optimize the coordination of care.  

Q: What frustrates you most about the healthcare industry right now?

TS: It's really the ongoing, insufficient focus on childhood and adolescence in the healthcare sectors. We're starting to see the ramifications of that nationally. U.S. infant mortality statistics are not great when we compare ourselves across the globe, and even when we compare ourselves to our past, mortality rates for infants, children and adolescents are at best stagnant, or in fact, going up. The biggest hurdle we have currently is deaths from suicide, which is at a crisis level.  

People talk so much about managing chronic diseases in adulthood, and we know with the aging patient population how much further pressure on healthcare costs that's going to create. Why don't we pause, look at our kids and invest in healthy, educated children? That's the solution to the future. Because if they're healthy, then they go into adulthood with minimal healthcare costs and they'll have adopted healthy behaviors and will not have the origins of many of the chronic diseases. Healthy, educated kids become productive, tax-paying citizens that contribute to the economic strength of the city and the state. That's why I reflect back on Gov. Pritzker's and Mayor Lightfoot's thinking in terms of starting to tilt and pivot greater investment into the kids, because that is the future. Until we start thinking in that way, we're going to find ourselves not optimally developing the kind of financial sustainability and security as a state that Illinois citizens aspire to.

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