'The wall doesn't care': 1 CMO on getting things done in a shifting environment

Eric Katz, MD, chief medical officer at Banner Estrella Medical Center, loves nothing more than to build better mousetraps.

"The mousetraps that we build in medicine are really good ones, like improving mortality by 1 percent. That's a ton of people whose lives are affected in a positive way," he told Becker's.

Dr. Katz grew up in the field with a father who was a neurosurgeon and a mother who was a programmer who ran his father's community office. From them he learned that "you have to be nice to patients or they won't want you to care for them, and if you pay attention to money, you don't have to worry about money."

Now, in his administrative role — which he calls an influence position — Dr. Katz no longer sees patients, but "I still get to feel like I'm a real physician."

Here, he discusses the challenges facing the field and some of the advice that has shaped him.

Question: What's the greatest challenge facing physicians right now?

Dr. Eric Katz: There's a comedian, and I don't remember which one, who said, "Everybody has an inner voice. Like when someone cuts you off in traffic, and you're like, 'God, I'd love to run into that guy.' And we don't listen to that voice," and he said the problem today is people are listening to that voice. I agree with that. There's a cultural change, whether it's a product of COVID or social media, both or other stuff, I don't know. I feel like people are driven more by their point of view to the point of not willing to consider other issues. 

We see issues that four years ago would never have come up: We see behavioral issues, we see patient issues where they're more demanding family issues, there's more confrontational safety issues as a result, we see people who are refusing to follow and establish rules. That to me is both very frustrating and very problematic. I think all of our processes involve how we intersect with people and if people aren't willing to be intersected in a productive manner, that makes our jobs really hard. 

Q: What concerns you most about the healthcare field?

EK: I think the rapid commercialization of medicine is a problem. By that I mean there's so many financial pressures that it makes it very difficult to do the right thing for our patients and employees. Commercialization and quality seems to be at loggerheads, and there's no reason you can't have both. We just have to do it smartly and sometimes a little more deliberately than we'd like.

Q: What new technology, innovation or research are you most excited about?

EK: I'm really excited about the idea that the digital transformation will open new doors and it will revolutionize what we do. I find the ability to integrate care across multiple platforms really good because I don't think anybody has the one answer to all the care. You need partners. 

I really love the technological advancements within telehealth. Probably in the next 10 years cellphones will be a stethoscope or an EKG machine.

I know what I'd like to see: one source of information on patients. I wish there was one data repository with all the information on that person from the pharmacy to the primary physician so we can eliminate mistakes because patients are imperfect sources of history. Rather than having to clear medication lists with every physician, it'd be great to only change one data source.

Q: What's something your hospital/system is doing that you're most proud of?

EK: We spend a lot of time and energy being the employer of the future. We want to be a place where people want to work. In that line for physicians, we cultivate happiness in medicine, but that spreads into lots of different areas. One of our greatest initiatives was spearheaded by Mike Gomez, our chief of staff. He arranged these lunch-and-learns. We expected to have about 10 or 12 physicians show up. And we did for the first lunch, as well as 30 to 40 nurses, transporters, respiratory therapists and more. It was really cool because they started to discuss medical stuff as a group and I've never seen that before. We see the leaders meet, but not everybody else. We did six or seven of those lunches and attendance grew each time. 

We strive to be a great place to work and a great place to receive care. You can't have one without the other because who wants to work at a place that delivers crappy care, and who wants to come to a place where all the employees are miserable? 

Q: What's the best leadership advice you've received?

EK: A guy I worked with named Joe Primrose in St. Louis told me this my first year as a faculty member after residency at Barnes Jewish Hospital. We were a startup and every department had to fight for control of our own environment. We kind of had responsibility without authority. I was chasing a million things and Joe pulled me aside and said, "You're bashing your head on the wall and the wall does not care."

My current CEO told me more than once that "We focus on what we can control. If we spend our time worrying about what we can't control, we're not going to get the outcomes we want."

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