New Geisinger CEO Dr. Jaewon Ryu on his vision for democratizing world-class care

Geisinger's search for its next leader ended close to home. The Danville, Pa.-based health system officially appointed Jaewon Ryu, MD, its former executive vice president and CMO, to the position of president and CEO.

Dr. Ryu has served as CEO in an interim capacity since last November, when former CEO David Feinberg, MD, took a leadership role at Google. 

Dr. Ryu brings knowledge of the health system from two and a half years as CMO, as well as experience from his previous roles at Humana, Chicago-based University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, CMS and the VA.

"I am thrilled for this opportunity to lead," he told Becker's in an interview. "I think back to what brought me here to Geisinger. ... I was drawn to its longstanding culture and history around innovation and its mission-mindedness in trying to manage better health for populations and the communities."

With Becker's, Dr. Ryu discussed his plans to carry the torch of innovation at Geisinger and his vision for the future.

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

Question: What is your core focus for the rest of this year?

Dr. Jaewon Ryu: We've established a lot of great programs to take care of people, drive affordability around health and manage populations by making it easier for them to be healthy. Over the last couple years, we've invested in programs like Geisinger at Home. This takes care to the homes of the sickest 5 percent of our patient population. We have our genomics program, which has been tremendously successful. At this point over 245,000 patients consented, with about half as many with returned results on full exome sequencing. We've done primary care redesign, where we're spending more time with patients, and we're able to keep them out of hospitals and emergency rooms.

All of these are examples of bringing high-end programs — almost "VIP" care — to the masses, and doing it in a sustainable and affordable way. We're going to focus on doubling down on that foundation of making health easier by bringing care to people. For example, this summer we are launching 65 Forward, which is a VIP, concierge, primary care model specifically for Medicare patients and members. This is like a concierge practice where you would typically have to pay $500 or $1,000 a month out-of-pocket. To our Medicare Advantage patients here, it's going to be absolutely free.

Q: What is your longer-term vision for Geisinger's future?

JR: The vision for us is making health easier by meeting consumers where they are. Healthcare access is more complicated than it needs to be. The financing of care is unnecessarily complex as well. We think when you make health easier, a lot of good things happen for patients and communities.

Two years ago, we went live with the Fresh Food Farmacy, where we took fresh produce and lean meats and delivered them to food insecure households or to people with diabetes that was not optimally managed. It's a great example of making health easier by creating better access to healthier eating and wrapping around it better coaching, training, cooking lessons and recipes. When we did that, we saw food was more impactful than medicine in dropping hemoglobin A1c, a measure of how diabetes is controlled.    

Those kind of programs — whether it's food, housing, transportation, creating better primary care, getting care into the home — are the things we know will improve the health of our communities.

Q: So you're really focusing on the social determinants of health?

JR: It's social, but I think it might even be broader. We definitely pay attention to social, but it's figuring out every way to remove a barrier that gets in the way of health. And oftentimes, it is social. Traditional healthcare would say you build something and you expect patients to come. More and more, we're trying to build things and take them to the patient.

Q: How does technology fit into your vision for the future?

JR: We were one of the earlier installs of outpatient Epic. We have a longstanding history of not just having technology, but really leveraging it to improve patient care. We use it to systematize a lot of our care processes and protocols.

A lot of folks are talking about artificial intelligence and machine learning. We have put some of that into practice. Every CAT scan of the head gets read by a machine first. That started about 2 years ago. By doing so, we've been able to reduce the turnaround time by over 96 percent, meaning faster results when there's truly emergencies to be found inside somebody's brain. We think there is a whole world of opportunity in terms of digital and mobile. While we've made some progress, we think there's a lot more opportunity there.

We also would say you've got to be a little bit careful. We know sometimes technology can depersonalize care and it can also sometimes become the end in and of itself. At Geisinger, we try to stay very disciplined in making sure the technology is a means to the end and the end is making health easier. 

Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge Geisinger faces right now?

JR: The greatest challenge is if you look at the healthcare landscape, and this is countrywide really, there are forces that are good and necessary — there's more consumerism in healthcare, more competition, shifting demographics. People are older and sicker. Those things are all true in our local markets as well. In a weird way, that's what helps us innovate. As the adage goes: Necessity is the mother of all innovation. We like our chances when we are put in a position where we must innovate around solutions to take care of sicker, older people better. We've built a lot of great programs that allow us to do that. If we are continuing to drive value and doing so in a patient-centric way that's mindful of those dynamics, we are well positioned against competition or the forces of consumerism and otherwise.  

Q: How do you plan to continue this culture of innovation as CEO?

JR: We must keep pushing the envelope around how can we do things better. We're lucky that is sort of woven into our DNA. These programs I've described are some indicators of how we've gone about doing that. You heard me talk about 65 Forward, for example. We're also in some preliminary discussions around what we can do for housing in our service areas. That's another example of looking at health and healthcare beyond the traditional lens of hospital and clinic but looking more broadly at the social issues or other factors that can make it easier for health to happen. Then of course there's the technology component. It's all those things woven together that creates the impetus to continue to innovate.

It's self-selective, too. A lot of people come here because that's exactly what they want to do. It's almost like a virtuous cycle, where our history of culture and innovation draws people who are cut from that same cloth and fit into this environment where that's been encouraged, and they flourish.

Q: What personally sparks creativity for you?

JR: For me, it's looking at problems and trying to solve them. When we launched our Steele Institute for Health Innovation, we were very deliberate to say we are going to solve for real-world problems. We are not going to innovate for innovation's sake but innovate to solve problems facing our patients and members. The end for us has always got to be making health easier. That's what drives me and sparks the "innovation bug" in me, if you will. 

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

JR: I think what makes Geisinger so unique is we're bringing these high-end, world-class care programs to the people of central, northeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey. There's this notion of democratizing world class care — that's the core and essence of this place. We are bringing these programs to normal everyday people. In doing so, they have access to these things for free, versus many other places, where they'd have to pay out of pocket a few hundred dollars to get their genome sequenced. Here it's totally free if they are a patient at Geisinger. They would have to pay out-of-pocket for concierge primary care. Here it's totally free, as long as they are a Geisinger Medicare Advantage member. There's tremendous power in that. We believe we have a model for American healthcare that can become a blueprint. Good, better care is actually more affordable care.


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