The corner office: GBMC HealthCare System CEO Dr. John Chessare on getting beyond 'hard work and good intentions' in healthcare

John Chessare, MD, knew from a young age that he wanted to spend his career doing something that would improve others' lives. After deciding to become a physician, he was drawn to quality improvement, and after 37 years in healthcare, he has not veered from this path.

Dr. Chessare became president and CEO of Greater Baltimore Medical Center HealthCare System in June 2010. There, he oversees GBMC, a 270-bed john chessareacute care nonprofit hospital; Greater Baltimore Medical Associates, a group comprised of more than 40 multi-specialty physician practices; Greater Baltimore Health Alliance, a coalition of GBMC-employed and private practicing physician partners; Gilchrist Hospice; and the GBMC Foundation.

A pediatrician by training, Dr. Chessare joined GBMC after serving in a number of executive leadership positions. He served as interim president of the Caritas Christi Healthcare System in Boston and was the president Caritas Norwood Hospital, as well as senior vice president for quality and patient safety of the entire Caritas System. He's also held executive leadership positions at Boston Medical College/Boston University School of Medicine and Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center/Albany Medical College.

Under Dr. Chessare's leadership, GBMC was honored in September with the inaugural American Society for Healthcare Risk Management Patient Safety Award for its organization-wide efforts to improve patient safety. The award recognizes GBMC's use of lean and lean daily management to improve health outcomes for patients and reduce preventable harm.

Here, Dr. Chessare 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 your typical 18-year-old in 1970 — I wanted to save the world. I had initially been thinking about a career in foreign service, but the summer before I went to Boston College as a freshman I decided I wanted to help people by becoming a physician. I thought it would be a great way to spend my life.

What do you enjoy most about Baltimore?

Baltimore is a very diverse city. It's kind of sad that the press tends to highlight the negative or outrageous events that occur. Although we have our share of problems — income inequality is a huge issue — there are plenty of wonderful things. It's a great cultural city. There are great restaurants. Chesapeake Bay is a thing of tremendous natural beauty and it's an economic engine — a big, robust port city. Baltimore is just a wonderful place.

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

It would definitely be the patient safety issue. Many hospitals still rely on hard work and good intentions alone. These are absolutely necessary, but they're dramatically insufficient for assuring safe and effective care. Other high-risk industries like  nuclear power and commercial aviation have designed for safety. They assume humans will make human errors, so they've built systems around the humans to keep people safe. We are getting better about this in healthcare, but we still have some work to do.

We are designing systems to help us get the patient outcomes we want, and we're taking advantage of the tremendous energy, hard work and intelligence of the doctors, nurses and others to get there. That's why we are so proud of GBMC for receiving ASHRM's Patient Safety Award.

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

I'm a people person. I've also been a clinician, which I think is very helpful because I can talk to other doctors from a place of shared experience. I have phenomenal non-clinical colleagues as well, but doctors appreciate it when a leader has the deep process knowledge of the work they do. I know what it's like to take care of a sick child in the middle of the night and not having everything I need to do it.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I'm very lucky to have a wonderful family. I love spending time with them. I also love jazz music — I'm completely infatuated with the jazz musicians that come to town here. I had the pleasure of seeing the vibraphonist Warren Wolf perform. He's a 35-year-old musician from Baltimore. He's extremely talented. I just sat and listened to him in amazement. Music brings so much joy to people, and I find that very rejuvenating.

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

There are two. One of the best pieces of professional advice I've ever received was to practice lean daily management. I used to think if I could only teach quality improvement a little bit better, improvement would catch fire and outcomes would be so much higher. Now I know how silly that was. Instead, the technique of lean daily management puts people in a position to be required to improve their work every day.

Another valuable piece of advice came to me a few decades ago: Keep your passion in check. I was about 35 years old at a hospital committee meeting in Toledo. I was so passionate about what we were discussing, but I thought everyone was moving too slowly to improve. When the meeting was over, the medical director took me aside and said I would have gotten much further in the meeting if I had toned it down a bit and started from the same place as everyone else at the table. They all wanted the same thing as me — to find a way to improve quality — they just didn't know how to get there. He reminded me I needed to thank them for all they have already done. Sometimes coming on really strong and passionately doesn't work. There is a place for passion, but there is also a place for calmness and reflection.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Greater Baltimore Medical Center HealthCare System so far?

It is clearly our movement to transform our company from being hospital-centric to patient-centric. Our team has done a phenomenal thing since I joined the organization six years ago. We now have 12 patient-centered medical homes throughout the county.

Our organization's vision is to provide the highest quality of care to every patient, every time. We want to provide every patient with the same quality of care that we would want for our own loved ones. Our people are doing a fantastic job of moving from volume- to value-based healthcare.

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