UMass Memorial CEO: 'In leadership, you have to make sure people believe the future is going to be better than the past'

Eric Dickson, MD, is president and CEO of Worcester-based UMass Memorial Health Care, Central New England's largest health system. Dr. Dickson spoke with Becker's about the challenge of inspiring a team in the wake of an exhausting year.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and cohesion.

Question: What are some of the biggest challenges you're currently facing as CEO in the wake of everything that's happened this last year?

Dr. Eric Dickson: I think the biggest challenge by far is how tired people are, and trying to get people refocused on the mission and the work given all that they've been through this past year. And there are lots of other challenges out there, like finances and a new entry into the marketplace, that really are scary. But none of it is as scary as thinking about where people are at right now coming out of COVID, especially those that were caring for patients during all of it. 

I met with the department chair of our clinical department this morning and spent most of our time talking about how hard it is for me as CEO right now to get in front of a bunch of managers and executives and create positive energy and hope and a brightness to the future and you know, how great things are going to be and what we have to get done to realize that.

Q: Given everything that's happened, what would you say your health system's greatest accomplishments have been in this last year?

ED: [I'm most proud of] the ability to manage COVID at the level that we did, and the creation of a field hospital that serves the entire state — really served all of New England — and the ability to adapt to changes, and nobody ever said, "That's not my job." Everybody did whatever they had to do for the patients and for their communities. And I've never seen anything like it in my career. And it will undoubtedly be almost the highlight of my career in terms of what we were able to accomplish in order to achieve a common goal. And I think our challenge now is keeping that going. 

Q: Do you think the challenges from this past year have highlighted what medical training needs to include more of?

ED: As someone who has been involved with resident training or medical student training their entire career, the residents and the students that went through this will emerge stronger, and will be able to hopefully look back on this experience during other tough times in their careers and rally the same type of inner strength that they rallied to get through this. 

One of the residents sent a letter to me that said, "We were forged from the steel of the COVID mines." I thought that was appropriate. But I don't know that it got us to a lot of the things that students really need to understand, like how the U.S. healthcare system works. I think the equity piece in general and the inequities throughout the system were highlighted, but there's a lot more to do. And just understanding how the system works, very few students or residents or physicians understand some of the most important things that we're struggling with, like access to care for everyone. And implicit biases, how they impact the way we deliver care to patients.

Q: What are your priorities for 2021 and 2022?

ED: No. 1 is this is the year of the caregiver for us; to take care of our people above all else and recognize that everything else you want to do strategically has to take a backseat to ensuring that the people that worked so hard during this COVID pandemic are taken care of. No. 2 would be fully leveraging digital medicine to improve the care for the patient: new digital diagnostics, therapeutics, and even video telemedicine that a lot of doctors never thought they would want [but] to do are now recognizing patients like it better. They don't want to come in every time. So we have to keep that momentum going. 

And I think that the rise of a renewed focus on health equity will go a long way to heal some of the racial tension that exists in the country, and proving that we're making sure that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, gets the same high-quality care in this country and in our healthcare system.

And I think if we do that, it sends a message to our diverse employees that this is important to us and they're not going to be marginalized by their employer because of the way that we take care of our patients. I think that's going to be incredibly important.

And then I think we're all wrestling with what is the new value-based care paradigm in the country. More and more data is coming out that ACOs have not delivered anywhere near what they had promised over the past decade that we've been doing this. Nobody was talking too much about value-based care during COVID. And now from an actuarial standpoint, it's hard to be doing risk-based contracts because nobody understands really where total medical expenditures are going to be over the course of the next couple of years coming out of COVID. With 75 percent of mammography being put off during that period of time, there's now going to be more severe cases of breast cancer that couldn't get caught early on. So I think we're going to have to redefine where we are at with value-based payments because they cannot just pick up where they left off. They were honestly fine going into COVID. I think people are going to be very scared to pick risk moving forward.

Q: If you could pass along one piece of advice to another CEO, what would it be?

ED: Take care of people and don't ever let them lose hope. Make sure that they see you as seeing the future as bright and positive and better than the past. In leadership, you have to make sure people believe the future is going to be better than the past. And that's what I would relay to my CEO colleagues as the most important thing they have to do in the coming year.

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