The corner office: Dr. Stephen Klasko of Jefferson Health System on passion, creativity and his "new math"

"One of my Wharton professors said, 'You should always have five people under you who think they can do a better job than you, and three of them that are right.' Too often in academic healthcare, leaders are threatened by people under them who have skill sets they don't. I try to surround myself with incredibly smart people who I can learn from."

Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, is president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia. A board-certified OB-GYN, Dr. Klasko is bridging the art and science of medicine and healthcare information technology through an entrepreneurial-academic model.

Dr. Klasko previously served as CEO of USF Health and dean of the college of medicine at University of South Florida in Tampa. After receiving his medical degree and completing his obstetrics and gynecology residency, he earned his MBA at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

At Jefferson, Dr. Klasko leads an academic medical center that consistently ranks among the top hospital systems in the country and serves as the largest health employer in the greater Philadelphia region. Over the last several years, he has pioneered the development of the first medical school that selects students based on emotional intelligence, led the team that built the country's largest assessment of technical and teamwork competence center, and created an innovative primary-care-driven, patient-centric, Medicare-based accountable care model within the country's largest retirement community.

Dr. Klasko has served on the boards of several national nonprofit hospital systems. He is currently on the corporate board of Teleflex, a global medical device company, and was recently named a trustee of Lehigh University, one of the country's leading academic institutions. He has written extensively on the need to "change the DNA of healthcare" by transforming the selection and education of health professionals. To that end, he has received more than $2 million in grants researching the biases affecting physicians' willingness to accept change. He has written more than 200 articles and books, including "The Phantom Stethoscope: A Field Manual for Finding an Optimistic Future in Medicine" and "Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be OB-GYNs."

Dr. Klasko is married to Colleen Wyse, a former Conde Nast publishing executive and now a vice president at Visit Philly, and has three children: Lynne, a public health professional at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, David, an actor in New York City, and Jill, a marketing director in Tampa.

Here, Dr. Klasko took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions.

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

I'm going to go with two, since I've had two stages of my career — one as a private doctor and one after receiving my MBA from Wharton. What got me excited when I was young is medicine's amazing focus on the individual. You earn the people's trust with their life and their health, and in my case as an obstetrician, their babies. The patient expects you to use all your expertise to get it right. As a doctor, you can say one word to a patient that will make things all right.

The challenge point came later in my career, and that's the absolute complacency with the way we do things in healthcare — thinking it's the best it can be — and the resistance to change. When I was in the weekend program at Wharton, people would say, "Wow, you're so lucky to be in healthcare, a $2 trillion industry going through all this change. There are all these good opportunities." I felt good Saturday and Sunday, and then on Monday I go into the OR lounge and people are saying, "Everything is changing, that's going to be bad for us, I should retire and tell my son or daughter not to go into healthcare." During the weekends at Wharton, it was great to be in healthcare, but during the week at the hospital, it was everyone wishing things were as they used to be.

What do you enjoy most about Philadelphia?

Our passion in Philadelphia and Tastykakes, a Philadelphia snack tradition that is my one food vice.

The great thing about Philadelphia and Philadelphians is that we really care and fight for what we believe in. In other communities I've worked in, you have to push hard to ignite passion. Here, in healthcare, in arts, in sports — we really want to be the best and we're willing to roll up our sleeves to get it done. In Philadelphia, we have six academic medical centers in a concentrated area. You can literally go from one to the other without changing your parking spot. All of them have a commitment to excellence. That keeps you on your game. At the end of the day, you always have to be thinking about innovating and what you need to do to be the best to survive.

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

I think health disparities, by far. It's not just the access to care. It's the fact we ignore the true determinants of health, most of which have nothing to do with hospitals or doctors. At Jefferson, we have the first school of population health in the country. By the time the patient gets to the doctor, 80 percent of his or her health determinants are cast, whether it's water, diet, exercise or education.

Some think we're going to solve health disparities by providing better access to hospitals and doctors, which isn't a bad start, but we're missing 90 percent of the boat by not doing things from the population health perspective. Unfortunately, we spend 90 percent of our healthcare dollars on the 10 percent of acute care that will determine your health, and we under-resource the public health aspects.

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

I would say creativity and communication. The way I translate that is I think you can work hard and have fun. I believe you can work in an industry like ours with stress and amazing rewards, but the rewards are heightened if the team feels they can stretch themselves creatively and just have some fun. If there is one differentiating factor in my leadership career, it is that I have never taken myself too seriously, and I call others out who start to forget that. Every day we come to work is an honor. You can do great things and have fun at work. They are not mutually exclusive.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I have three passions: flying, running and music. They stimulate and release stress in different ways. Flying is the only thing I can do outside of work that requires total concentration and gets my mind off daily stress. When you're flying, you can't think about anything else. Running for the opposite reason: It requires little mental concentration, so I can relax and think freely. Music has been my love and my first career, whether listening or playing. It is pure emotion to me. David Crosby wrote a song called, "Music is Love" and I believe that. I started my very first career as a disc jockey, and I have about 130,000 digital songs and several hundred vinyl albums.

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

One of my Wharton professors said, "You should always have five people under you who think they can do a better job than you, and three of them that are right." Too often in academic healthcare, leaders are threatened by people under them who have skill sets they don't. I try to surround myself with incredibly smart people who I can learn from. At Jefferson, that exists all around me. I have at least five people who think they are smarter than me and at least three who are right.  

What do you consider your greatest achievement at TJUH System so far?

I have been in my role for a year, and we received a $110 million gift from the Sidney Kimmel Foundation, the largest gift in our 190-year history, in my first year on the job. That required setting Jefferson up organizationally for an optimistic future. I'm the first combined president of the university and health system in almost 20 years. Jefferson has always been considered premier for clinical care with amazing doctors, nurses and staff. But when I came here, I reported to three different boards and management teams, sometimes with cross purposes. I was coming to lead an organization that wasn't really set up below me or above me to be nimble.

Within a year, thanks to the amazing work of our trustees, we've gone from boards with 130 people to one board of about 40 with an executive committee of about 17. Because of that, we were able to get together to create a strategic vision: "We will reimagine healthcare, education and discovery to create unparalleled value."

We currently live under what I like to call the "old math," which is National Institutes of Health funding, clinical reimbursements and tuition. For us, the new math is innovation and philanthropy. We got rid of the artificial divisions that existed between the university, physicians and hospitals and created a four-pillar model: academic, clinical, innovation and philanthropy. I believe that creativity, optimism and commitment to excellence is what motivated Sidney Kimmel, who has those same qualities, to give a transformative gift to Jefferson.

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