The Corner Office: Alan Channing of Sinai Health System and His Favorite Audacious Notion

After leading Chicago-based Sinai Health System for 10 years, President and CEO Alan Channing will retire July 1.

Mr. Channing has spent 40 years of his career at nonprofit, safety-net hospitals. He has spearheaded some remarkable accomplishments at Sinai, the four-hospital, community-driven health system on the city's west side. Mr. Channing helped orchestrate the 2012 merger that added the Catholic Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago's southwest side to the Sinai family, successfully combining two of Chicago's most established faith-based healthcare organizations.

He has also paid keen attention to the local community over the years. Sinai's payer mix — 60 percent Medicaid, 20 percent Medicare and 13 percent uninsured — has not hindered its population health efforts. For instance, in 2013, the American Hospital Association honored Sinai Urban Health Institute with the NOVA Award for its hospital-led community effort to help prevent and reduce the severity of pediatric asthma in the Lawndale area of Chicago.

Mr. Channing grew up outside of Harrisburg, Pa. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master's degree from The Ohio State University in Columbus. He previously served as the CEO of St. Vincent Charity Hospital and St. Luke's Medical Center in Cleveland, and as CEO of two hospitals within the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., including Bellevue Hospital. Mr. Channing's wife Ronda is a writer and author.

Here, Mr. Channing took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

In the late 1960s, I was an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati in the work-study program, where you go to work for a term and then school for a term. I kept looking for a job in these work study cycles that really stimulated me. I was looking for a place to make a difference in people's lives.

They sent me to work at an engineering consultancy and I was designing sewers, then I went to work for Mack trucks, building engines and transmissions. I kept going back to my work advisor at the university and saying, "You have to find me another job." Finally, he literally threw the folder at me and said, "Here, go find something that works for you." In there I saw a letter from a community hospital in Middletown, Ohio. I thought, "This looks sort of interesting and sort of fits my needs." As a student in industrial management, I could apply those skills to work in the hospital.

Fast forward a little, at Sinai, I welcome all of our new caregivers — which is everybody — by teaching them the Old Testament concept of tikkun olam. It's a Hebrew phrase and there are a number of translations, but my favorite is "repairing the universe," this audacious notion of making the world a better place for everybody. That's really what triggered my interest as I was searching for a place to build a career. Healthcare could allow me to do that.

What do you enjoy most about Chicago?

Chicago is an incredibly vibrant city with great theater, museums, restaurants and great healthcare. The people I've had the opportunity to come to know and appreciate have all been terrific folks, just wonderful human beings. But with that, [the city] still has opportunities to address disparities in healthcare. When you look across the city, based on race and ethnicity, there are still huge disparities in diabetes, breast cancer — all kinds of [conditions] Sinai has been addressing over a number of years. Until Chicago, and frankly the U.S., starts to deal with these disparities, we're still going to be seen from the healthcare perspective as a second-rate power in spite of the elegant medical centers we have.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

My thought about that is really equal access to quality education, care and insurance coverage. There was recent New York Times article about how the U.S. was actually underspending on healthcare and social services, if you aggregated the two, compared to other countries with better healthcare outcomes. And, that is in spite of the overspending we've had on high-end diagnostic tools and robots. [Editor's note: The article, "Spending More and Getting Less for Health Care," was written by Pauline W. Chen, MD, and published November 21, 2013.]

As I hear people in the industry and some of the more conservative policy wonks talk about "patients have to have skin in the game," often they use that language to talk about Medicaid recipients. What I've seen through the work we've done is that people who don't have the knowledge base can't have skin in the game — to understand how to eat, the impact of the way they cook. They don't know what blood sugar means and the impact of it. Investing on that side, education, along with universal coverage would fix healthcare.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

I'm here six days a week. My wife might argue I am never out of the suite. The way I thought about that is, I've really been honored to represent Sinai and what it stands for, and having the opportunity to speak for those who can't speak for themselves. The way I interpreted the question is the difference between how I spend my time as an operating manager versus how I represent Sinai and healthcare to a broader community.

Having said that, if you by any chance look up Ronda's book, I took the cover photo. [Editor's note: Mr. Channing's wife, Ronda, authored the novel "Every Imaginable Shade of Gray" under the pen name Ronda Schiff.] Photography is one of my interests. I'm a novice on digital; most of my favorite photographs are film. I do a little amateur astronomy, too, and I am an avid reader and bike rider.

How do you revitalize yourself?  

My favorite thing to do when I get up to my eyeballs [with work] in my office is go for a walk in the halls of the hospitals or the clinics and talk to caregivers and to patients. To me it is absolutely astounding, and it takes me back to why I'm here, why this institution exists and what an honor it is to work with people across the continuum of providers who are practicing tikkun olam.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

In this case I think of my mother. When I would come home as a youngster and say, "I did this," or "I did that," she'd always remind me to be humble. Don't let your shoulders get rounded by patting yourself on the back, something to that effect. Remember who you are and maintain your humility.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Sinai so far?

A number of people have said this to me so I'll repeat it back in my words. As I've said: Sinai is a pretty unique place. It's been on the cutting edge of community health long before Obamacare called for community health needs assessments. With that notion in mind, what I think I brought was a focus to integrating the community work with the more traditional medical and hospital care while trying to create a culture of driving and measuring quality. Putting those pieces together has led to a number of national awards Sinai has won during my tenure. That makes me proud to be part of the team and proud of my Sinai colleagues for what they've accomplished. They give me the opportunity to brag about them.

More Corner Office Q&As:
The Corner Office: Dr. Vivian Lee of University of Utah Health Care on Where She Finds Optimism
The Corner Office: Joel Allison of Baylor Scott & White Health on Finding the Calling
The Corner Office: Dr. Mike Schatzlein of Saint Thomas Health on Music and Modern Medicine


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