The Corner Office: Dr. Vivian Lee of University of Utah Health Care on Where She Finds Optimism

Vivian S. Lee, MBA, MD, PhD, CEO of University of Utah Health Care, describes her "aha" moment, her biggest concern in healthcare and the piece of advice she remembers most.

Since July 2011, Vivian S. Lee, MBA, MD, PhD, has served as senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Utah, dean of U of U's School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care, all based in Salt Lake City. She previously served as vice dean for science, senior vice president and chief scientific officer senior of New York University Medical Center. During her time there, the organization rose from No. 36 to No. 27 for funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Lee is a champion for transparency and value-driven care in academic medical centers. "I'm a big believer in data and in measuring things," she has told Becker's Hospital Review. That credence helped spur the development of UHC's Value-Driven Outcomes tool, an algorithm meant to measure the true cost — not the sticker price — of a patient's episode of care. Dr. Lee2

Dr. Lee, a radiologist, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, where she earned a doctorate in molecular engineering. She earned her medical degree with honors from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and completed her MBA at New York University's Stern School of Business.

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

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

Several years ago, I met with a close friend of mine, Gregg Meyer, an internist who was responsible for patient quality and safety at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He and I had a conversation that really shifted my thinking about healthcare dramatically. He was explaining to me the leading role that his hospital played to push forward the early adoption of pay-for-performance metrics, through the use of their advanced electronic medical records and data analytics.

That was an "aha" moment for me. I realized the role of academic health systems should be to lead the transformation of medicine, and I also realized I wanted to help. The model seemed clear: We had to reinvent ourselves and then make sure our trainees shared our new values to carry these changes forward.

To really reinvent our healthcare delivery systems, we need to partner and integrate our thought leaders directly into these systems — everyone from health economists to bioinformaticians to behavioral change psychologists. These academicians could help us approach problems with new perspectives, with more rigor in their experimental approaches, and then disseminate and share lessons learned. As the training grounds for new healthcare professionals, if we do our jobs right, our trainees will embrace a new culture of the patient-centered, value-driven, transparent healthcare — and in their careers, they can lead other organizations in that transformation and ongoing improvement.

What do you enjoy most about Salt Lake City?

That we are one of the best-kept secrets in the country — don't tell anybody. There's so much to enjoy here. People are incredibly nice and hospitable, really great people. The city itself is just the right size — manageable and yet large enough to host a world-class symphony, an opera company, great festivals like Sundance and a wide range of fine restaurants, including a large selection of ethnic foods, which I'd become accustomed to in New York. And then of course there's our amazing physical setting. Between the seven major ski resorts just 30 minutes from my family's home to the five national parks within a few hours' drive, I really enjoy the life here, with my family, friends and all the guests who now come to visit!

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

That is a tough question. I would say my biggest concern is that our industry has really been focused on sickness, not health, and that we're not equipped or designed to do the single most important thing we can — prevent disease. We know approximately 75 percent of our healthcare dollar is spent caring for patients with preventable illnesses, often related to specific behaviors or lifestyles. Yet our system, our training programs, and the ways in which we're funded have generally not led us to be experts in changing those behaviors by incentivizing healthy living. I am acutely aware of this having moved from New York to Utah.

Utah boasts one of the healthiest lifestyles in the country, and as a result, data show we are in the enviable position of being in that sweet spot — having one of the healthiest populations and spending the least on healthcare of all the states in the country. As a nation, this is the biggest problem facing us in the coming years. We need to change our systems and our markets to make more progress toward health and wellness.

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

Certainly not my singing or skiing. I do make a mean chocolate cloud cake.

How do you revitalize yourself?

My family loves the outdoors. Right now, we are enjoying a terrific ski season in Utah. There is nothing like being on top of a mountain, clear blue skies, gorgeous powder and vistas of snow-dusted peaks all around you to give you clarity, energy and optimism.

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

The University of Utah's Mario Capecchi, 2007 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology, quoted an aphorism from his childhood: "The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer." And then he says, "It takes the same amount of effort to work on little questions as it does to work on big questions, so why not work on big questions."

What do you consider your greatest achievement at University of Utah Health Care so far?

Most of what has crystalized since I came to the University of Utah has been built on a foundation set by people like my predecessor, Lorris Betz, MD, PhD, and his team and their predecessors. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the historic culture of collaboration and innovation that has made the University of Utah so strong. What I feel really happy about right now is our talent. The quality of individuals who are actively engaged in our organization, transforming our health system, advancing our research and discovery, reinventing our educational systems, and providing service to our local and global communities is nothing short of remarkable. Tapping into that talent, enhancing it and then attracting more new talent are priorities that I know I will always feel good about.

More Corner Office Q&As:
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
The Corner Office: Quick Thoughts From Dr. David Bailey of Nemours


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