'Patient care is my first love': Dr. Aimee Becker on leading UW Health during COVID-19 and beyond

The patient has always been at the center of Aimee Becker's, MD, career. She has served as Madison, Wis.-based UW Health's chief medical officer since August 2018, where she's led the system through the countless challenges presented by COVID-19. 

Dr. Becker spoke to Becker's about what piqued her interest in the field, most rewarding experiences and goals for the future.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Aimee Becker: You know, it's funny. When I was a kid, probably going off to college and so on, I never thought I wanted to be a doctor. I was a science [and] math kid, did well in school, and pursued biomedical engineering degrees before medical school. My dad had a cerebral aneurysm rupture after my freshman year of college, and in that moment, I don't think that was the forefront of my thought processes that, "Hey, I want to go to medical school and be a doc," but when I look back I feel like that that definitely influenced me. 

Then when I look back even further [at] what my interests were in elementary school, I was fascinated with the human body. Like, I don't know if when you were in elementary school had those plastic human body models that had all the different organ systems. I was fascinated by those things and [in] the encyclopedias, there was a plastic overlay of the human body organ systems that I was fascinated with. So I'd flip through the circulatory system, the nervous system and so on. I always had that interest but it was never out there in the front of my decision making with my education. I think that came later after my dad had that stroke.

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment thus far? Whether it be in your career in general or at UW Health?

AB: I've been so lucky to work with such good, good teams and good organizations. I've been with UW Health pretty much my entire career. I did have a few years full time at the VA, which is an affiliate of UW Health and, you know, both organizations such great teams that, I guess it's hard to look back and think of [a] greatest accomplishment because we're always working to continually improve and focus on what's coming next right to meet our patient care needs. 

And so I kind of thought through this one a little bit, maybe as to what's really extremely rewarding. And once again, what's the most rewarding thing, I couldn't come up with one specific thing, but I guess [there's] a couple of different layers. I still take care of patients, and for me, that connection at a patient level is so very rewarding. I always say patient care is my first love. It is really why folks who are in healthcare are in healthcare. And then when you think about our academic missions associated with patient care, our education piece, for me, some of the most rewarding times have been within that education realm. 

For residents in particular when that light bulb goes on, that patient care is a privilege. I feel like once you are a healthcare team member, if they haven't come to healthcare, knowing and understanding that, once that light bulb goes off, that's so rewarding. With that privilege that is healthcare, with that comes specific obligations, [like] continual improvement, working with a team. And for me, some of the most rewarding experiences are when that light bulb goes off. 

Administratively, something that really caught up collectively across our organization from everyone across all of our disciplines really has been UW Health's collective response throughout the pandemic. Just the amount of collaboration, flexibility, resiliency in the time of profound unknowns, ever changing information and new curveballs. I am just really proud of the collective team for that as well. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, what would it be and why? 

AB: I think it's just sort of human nature, that we all view our experience from our own lens and platform. So I've been saying for a while to residents, to colleagues, that if I had a magic wand that I could wave, I would make any 'us versus them' in healthcare go away. And so there's lots of different layers of that. So when you think of just the patient care team, you know any doctor versus nurse isn't productive. Resident versus nurse or the ICU team disagreeing with the ED team. When we're busy and working hard sometimes, we can just be overly focused on our own perspective.

Q: What are your goals for the next six months as chief medical officer of UW Health? Next year?

AB: This one really comes down to one word, and really, that is health. For [a] large academic medical system like UW Health, this means we're building the care models, workforce and clinical programs to deliver remarkable care and meet patients where they are. This isn't new work, but it's also at a time when it's never been more challenging. When you think about most health systems facing financial headwinds about a stable market. Our patients still expect us to continue to meet their needs. 

And so even though we've been through a pandemic, and we still have plenty of COVID-19 around, that pandemic isn't an excuse for us to mark time. And so we've had to get creative. And I think part of that creativity has been leveraging some of the silver linings of the pandemic. I think examples of expanding telemedicine and remote work options are great examples of this. You know, we've been able to expand our workforce even through the pandemic and develop new virtual care options to continue to meet needs. But that high level, meeting the health needs of our community, is something that over the next six months, years is going to continue to be challenging.

Q: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?

AB: You don't have to have a title of a leader to be a leader. And sort of paired with that was the comment that you're not leading if nobody's following. The skills to be an effective leader don't come with a title. There's informal leaders and the concept of leading by influence where a lot of leadership exists. And I think that concept for me was really, really helpful early in my career.


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