The corner office: Dr. Susan Ehrlich on bridging clinical, executive and health policy leadership

Susan Ehrlich, MD, has only served as CEO of the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center since April, but her experience in primary care and executive leadership roles extends far beyond.

Born into a family of physicians, Dr. Ehrlich began on her path to medicine at an early age. She has a broad-ranging healthcare background, including experience in both clinical medicine and public health. Dr. Ehrlich has held numerous posts in health policy and finance, including serving as budget and planning director for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In addition, she continues to see patients in a clinical setting.

Prior to joining Zuckerberg San Francisco General, Dr. Ehrlich served as CEO of San Mateo (Calif.) Medical Center, where she oversaw a staff of nearly susan ehrlich1,500 and budget of $270 million. Her prior roles at the medical center include CMO, vice president and medical director. She also previously served as the founding medical director of the Ron Robinson Senior Care Center in San Mateo, an interdisciplinary patient-centered medical home for older adults, as well as assistant health officer for the San Mateo County Health System.

At the helm of 397-bed Zuckerberg San Francisco General, Dr. Ehrlich leads a staff and UCSF faculty of 5,400 and manages a budget of $1.1 billion.

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

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

I was basically born into healthcare — I'm a third generation physician. My father was an epidemiologist and his father was a general internist. So I have that family connection to healthcare.

In college I became interested in health policy. I was part of the North Carolina Student Rural Health Coalition and studied farm worker health at Duke University. In the field, I studied farm worker exposure to pesticides and the effects on their health. That was my first job in healthcare.

What do you enjoy most about San Francisco?

I can't say just one thing. Given the work I do, San Francisco is a city that really cares about and supports all of its citizens. It makes great investments in healthcare, public health and healthcare delivery systems. Secondly, the city has a culture that really promotes and celebrates diversity. It's been this way for a long time.

Naturally, the beauty of the city is unparalleled. I love being here. I believe it's one of the most loved places to visit in the world.

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

There are two things. I would eliminate inequality and our irrational payment system. We have so many different payers, each of which has different rules about paying, and few of them are really linked to value.

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

I am a primary care internist and earlier in my career I helped set up an interdisciplinary clinic for seniors. It is a full-service primary care clinic. I'm still very devoted to caring for patients. Back at San Mateo Medical Center I saw patients every Monday morning and every other Wednesday afternoon.

I started in my new role as CEO at Zuckerburg in April, and my clinical practice here begins in September.

How do you revitalize yourself?

Spending time with my family — they really ground me in life. I'm also a devoted runner. I run races occasionally — maybe one or two a year — but I run pretty religiously every week. I used to do marathons and triathlons, but now the half marathon is my favorite. Those and 10ks.

I also try to get enough sleep each night.

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

I have been fortunate to have received a lot of great advice in my career. One that has stuck with me is "follow your passion." I really try to do that in my life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center so far?

I've only been here a few months, so it's a little early to think about my greatest achievement here so far. But something I've done is set up an executive team comprised of hospital executives and UCSF faculty leaders to increase accountability in aligning the work of our organization with our true-north goals: quality, safety, patient experience and financial stewardship.

Before I got here, we did not have a team responsible for aligning and focusing the work of the organization in this way. Although the team here was doing a lot of really incredible improvement work, my job as a leader is to support those teams and help them focus on the things that are most important.

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