The physician CEO keeping it real for RUSH and Chicago

Omar Lateef, DO, is what one could call a physician's physician. A pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist, he completed his fellowship at RUSH University Medical Center in 2005. Today he leads the entire Chicago-based enterprise as CEO. 

"My career was never about eventually becoming a healthcare leader," Dr. Lateef tells me on a Monday in May. We're in his office on RUSH's campus, where his desk is remarkably organized and colorful drawings from his children are tacked up behind his computer. He went for a drive with his teenager the night before, acknowledging it as one of the few activities that gets a teen to put down the cell phone. 

Face time — sans phone — is important to Dr. Lateef. He loves practicing medicine, and believes time with patients at the bedside is what made him grow up as a person. The physician's physician went on to become the homegrown CEO of the entire RUSH system, which includes its academic medical center, medical school and partner hospitals, in July 2022. Before then, he served as president and CEO of the flagship RUSH University Medical Center for three years. Before then, he served as the hospital's chief medical officer. 

RUSH is a short name for a special place. It has been part of Chicago's healthcare landscape longer than any other institution with a history spanning more than 185 years. RUSH Medical College was Chicago's first medical school, established two days before the city itself was chartered. It educated Dr. David Jones Peck, the first Black person to earn a degree from an American medical school in 1847. 

RUSH's flagship hospital is a 14-story, 671-bed facility constructed after 9/11 fit for bio-threats, pandemics and other full-scale disasters. Its unusual white, butterfly-shaped tower is visible from the Eisenhower Expressway, a central route into and out of downtown Chicago.

From this location, RUSH finds itself in the middle of a 16-year gap in life expectancy. Two miles east of its campus is Chicago's Loop, where the life expectancy is 85 years. Two miles west of its campus is the city's West Garfield Park neighborhood, where residents live to an average age of 69. RUSH physician David Ansell, MD, MPH devoted a book — The Death Gapto uncovering such neighborhood racial life-expectancy disparities. 

"Look, this is terrible," said Dr. Lateef. "If you're born on Michigan Avenue, you'll live 16 years longer than if you're born five subway stops west. We can do better. We have to do better." 

RUSH was a bit ahead of its peers when it adopted a health equity strategy in 2016 to address the life-expectancy gaps in its primary service area. The strategy is built on a handful of pillars, including naming racism and poverty as root causes of poor health and creating wealth-building opportunities for its nearly 10,000 employees. The system, as one of the largest employers on Chicago's West Side, established an anchor mission to hire, purchase, invest and volunteer locally. In 2019, RUSH set a goal to reduce the life expectancy gap between the Loop and West Side by 50 percent by 2030. 

The strategy would strongly inform the system's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus moved into Chicago, RUSH worked with many safety net hospitals to transfer critically ill patients in — many of whom required advanced critical care for COVID-19. It launched one of the city's first mobile COVID-19 testing teams, which tested vulnerable individuals in homeless shelters, nursing homes and the county jail. It established an isolation center for COVID-19-positive houseless people. It partnered with the city to create a hub for all data related to the virus and its spread.

At the onset of the pandemic, Dr. Lateef was still CEO of RUSH University Medical Center. He was hard to miss throughout this trying time and cemented a reputation for being visible, present and leading by example, according to those who work closely with him. The hospital drew recognition for its COVID-19 response, including a medal of honor from former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

"For me, the pandemic was a harsh lesson in the reality of leadership," Dr. Lateef said. "I hope and pray that the things we did during the pandemic were the right things for the organization, for the city, for the people that we serve." 

While the de-escalation of COVID-19 is welcomed worldwide, the camaraderie and collaboration the crisis brought with it is something Dr. Lateef finds worthy of bottling and scaling. He said one of the best things about Chicago is how it can come together as a community; he wishes it happened more regularly. 

"When the pandemic came, I would argue that the city of Chicago did a phenomenal job of sharing resources, load balancing across the city in conjunction with the government, the local and the state government to mount a phenomenal response because we did work together," he said. "I would love to see it not dissipate as the pandemic goes away, because there are new pandemics that aren't COVID. There's new pandemics that are behavioral health. There's new pandemics that are inequity. How do we share our resources to solve them?" 

Right now, Dr. Lateef sees a great need for healthcare organizations to move beyond the analysis of data that illustrates disparities and instead act to narrow them. He expressed some healthy impatience with inertia around health equity work. Less talk, more walk, essentially.  

"As a nation we are still continuing to fund study after study to show healthcare disparities," he said. "I think we should accept that disparities exist, and fund program after program to solve them."  

RUSH's service area of Chicago's West Side is made up of 10 different neighborhoods and 600,000 residents — more than the population of Atlanta. In 2021, the health system established the RUSH BMO Institute for Health Equity, anchored by a $10 million gift from BMO Financial Group. The health system aims to raise at least $70 million more for the institute, which is focused on education and workforce development, community engagement, health equity research and community-based clinical practices, including church-based screenings and health centers in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. 

When Dr. Lateef talks about another of healthcare's most pressing problems — its staffing shortages — he does so without a hint of surprise. For years, national projections have shown sweeping deficits of physicians, nurses and other medical professionals. 

"Basic math tells you if there's more people retiring than are graduating and more people are getting old, that's not a good trend," Dr. Lateef said. "We knew that pre-pandemic." 

The U.S. faces a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including deficits in primary and specialty care, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The country may see a shortage of anywhere from 200,000 to 450,000 nurses by 2025, according to McKinsey. These figures are staggering, and only compound other thin spots throughout the healthcare system where demand exceeds supply, including designated mental health professional shortage areas and the exodus of nursing home workers that is forcing facilities to limit new patient admissions. 

Dr. Lateef acknowledges shortages exist, but he tries to spend more energy on the people who are working — today, right now, right here. 

"Look, I think that staffing shortages are a challenge. I think the real challenge is the staff that's there — how do you reward them for the incredible work that they put in day to day? I think what we need to do is maybe stop talking about the shortages and value the people that are in it right now, the frontline staff who are heroes every day. The nurses, therapists, physicians. It's been an incredible period, where the demands on healthcare were out of proportion to what we could provide, and yet everybody did it.

"We have to figure out how to value them. There is a net need for more healthcare providers in this country. I think what we have to work on is making coming to work so enjoyable that people can't wait to get back into the field."

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