Emory's next CEO: Listening, communicating the 'why' crucial for system engagement

On July 1, Joon Sup Lee, MD, will begin serving as CEO of Emory Healthcare, an 11-hospital system headquartered in Atlanta.

He will bring decades of healthcare experience to his new role.

Dr. Lee is executive vice president at Pittsburgh-based UPMC and president of UPMC Physician Services, where he is responsible for 5,000 employed physicians and all clinically active faculty. He also is associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

An interventional cardiologist by training, Dr. Lee previously served as chief of the division of cardiology and executive director of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute. 

He told Becker's Hospital Review he is excited about his new role. He shared his top priorities for his first year on the job, discussed a few of the challenges facing health systems and offered advice for his peers.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What has you most excited about your new role as CEO of Emory?

Dr. Joon Sup Lee: Atlanta is one of the fastest growing and incredibly diverse metropolitan areas in the United States and represents a lot of things that we are in the country. And Emory is an integrated academic health system within that growing metropolitan area. The ability to work with Emory to provide the highest quality care possible for the region and also to innovate and set the paradigm for how we can best deliver healthcare is a unique opportunity. I'm incredibly excited about that.

Q: What are a few of your top priorities for your first year at Emory?

JSL: We talked about the tremendous opportunity that healthcare in the Atlanta region provides. But this is in the backdrop of one of the most challenging periods for any healthcare system in generations. The social challenges, the workforce shortages, the supply chain issues that have been unleashed provide challenges but also opportunities to transform healthcare. Because of all these pressures, the willingness to change is greater and understanding the need to change for all of us in healthcare is much greater. So it's an opportunity to change the paradigm of care. Part of that means, how do we become more patient friendly in terms of how we approach healthcare access? Healthcare access is a problem throughout the country for health systems. So how do we approach that better? So, one of the first priorities is, how do we provide the highest quality care and increase access in an equitable manner for healthcare in the Atlanta region? That would be the one of the things that I'm going to be working with everyone on to see what we can do to improve that.

Q: What is one initiative or practice you will bring over to Emory from UPMC? 

JSL: I've spent the entirety of my career after training at UPMC, but every environment is a little bit different. I certainly think I have some lessons that I can apply and bring, but it's not a simple template where you can just transfer from one experience to another. But certainly the philosophy of emphasizing access to care, making it easier and making it more patient focused. Patient-centered care is a philosophy that already is at Emory. But we're going to concentrate on that even more because that's a critical component and a critical challenge for the American healthcare system.

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to other hospital CEOs, what would it be?

JSL: We have to recognize that our workforce has been under stress for the past three years in terms of not having enough of a workforce and all the challenges of the pandemic as well as the pre-pandemic period. For us to be successful, we have to make sure that we are communicating with the workforce and the staff and the team members who make up the healthcare system. Because what's critically important is the buy-in of the people at the front lines and we're not going to have easy solutions that solve all of these problems, but without engagement and without buy-in, none of the solutions are gonna be effective. So making sure we take extra time to communicate the "why" and what we need to do, and also listen to the front-line challenges so we can gauge what changes are possible for our workforce, given the current resources, is critically important.

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