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Is Houston Healthcare Experiencing a Crisis of Leadership? - Factum Consulting Ltd. | Boutique Consultancy with Global Expertise
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the healthcare industry has been in a state of confusion, especially in the United States. We won’t get into the political aspects impacting healthcare here since there’s plenty of that filling your newsfeed as it is.

Besides, politics aren’t the only part of the healthcare equation. Much of healthcare ” at least the parts that we see and experience as patients and employees ” is directly affected by our day-to-day interactions with healthcare organizations.

Prime examples include hospitals systems we visit. The way these systems operate, whether effectively or ineffectively, can be tied back to senior management. Their leadership molds, and sets the direction of, the organization.

And here in Houston, specifically, there seems to be a mass exodus of senior leaders in the medical center ” the healthcare heart of Houston.

Healthcare Leaders Step Down (Timeline of Tenure)

At the half-year mark for 2017, no less than three top leaders in the medical center stepped down from their posts at several of Houston’s most well-known healthcare organizations. First was MD Anderson Cancer Center. Shortly thereafter was Texas Medical Center. And most recently, there was Memorial Hermann.

MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Dr. Ron DePinho ” DePinho joined MD Anderson as president in September 2011 to much fanfare after a œworldwide search. He was touted for his research, credentials, academic accomplishments (he was a Harvard professor), and personal passion for ending cancer (his father having passed away from cancer).

However, DePinho left œunder pressure in March 2017. As noted by The Cancer Letter, MD Anderson had lost $405 million in the year leading up to DePinho’s resignation. This is supported by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting of DePinho’s tenure being œmired in faculty unrest, questions of conflict of interest and financial difficulties.

As for DePinho himself, he provided his own thoughts on his leadership performance in a video announcing his resignation: œI could have done a better job administratively, a better job listening, a better job communicating.

Texas Medical Center’s (TMC) Dr. Robert Robbins ” Robbins joined TMC as president and CEO in September 2012, taking over the role from a man who held the office for over 25 years.

Robbins left TMC in April 2017. In contrast to DePinho, there doesn’t seem to be any substantively negative or lacking qualities surrounding Robbins’ departure. He’s been praised for his work as a leader of TMC in developing sustainability in the organization’s vision and team, as well as evolving innovative ventures at and within TMC, which has attracted Fortune 500 companies like AT&T and Johnson & Johnson to collaborate with the institution.

Memorial Hermann’s Dr. Benjamin Chu ” Chu joined Memorial Hermann as CEO in June 2016, taking over for the previous CEO, who led the organization for 17 years. Noted as a œwell-respected, national thought leader in the health care industry, Chu was the first physician in the organization’s history to land the role.

Unfortunately, it seems that œfirst in the system’s history was short lived: Chu lasted less than a year. From multiple reports, Chu’s departure was abrupt. The parting words he left noted his desire to œpursue his passion in health and public policy.

His stepping down likely strikes a disappointing chord within the organization given how long his predecessor served before retiring. Luckily, the impact and disruption from his departure is sure to be minimal given how quickly the role was filled (more on that shortly). Still, there is probably still some dust that needs to settle.

(As a snapshot of events, see below for a timeline of tenure for each of these former healthcare leaders in the medical center.)

Timeline of Leadership Tenure

Timeline of Leadership Tenure

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New Healthcare Leaders Step Up (Brief Analysis)

With the previous leaders now moved on, the question remains as to whether their replacements are up for the job. Let’s take a brief look at each organization’s new leadership picks and what they bring to the healthcare table.

MD Anderson Cancer Center chooses Dr. Marshall Hicks ” DePinho is succeeded by Hicks, head of MD Anderson’s diagnostic imaging department, as the interim president.

Hicks is/was a division head, so he likely understands œbig picture thinking, though whether he’ll be able to view a picture as big as the entire MD Anderson system remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, he’s noted to be œone of the institution’s senior and most experienced division heads.

Still, he will only be interim president, as MD Anderson has already announced its plans to remedy this temporary fix:

A national search for a permanent president is expected to launch soon and will include the appointment of a search advisory committee. The committee will aim to recommend top candidates to the UT System Board of Regents by the end of 2017.

Texas Medical Center chooses Bill McKeon ” Robbins is succeeded by Bill McKeon, former COO of TMC.

McKeon was an obvious choice for succeeding Robbins, given his four-year tenure in TMC’s C-suite and previous experience as president and CEO of other leading organizations in healthcare and other industries. This means he has the dual insights of the internal workings of TMC, as well as what a successfully run organization looks like from the top position.

Memorial Hermann chooses Charles Stokes ” Chu is succeeded by Charles Stokes, former system COO of Memorial Hermann.

As in the case of McKeon, Stokes has tenure within the organization, having joined Memorial Hermann as COO in 2008. He’s also served as COO for three other health systems and as president of a medical center. In addition, he’s been named one of the Top 25 COOs in healthcare by Modern Healthcare. Along with multiple other distinctions and accolades that would be too long to list, Stokes seems a solid successor to Chu.

The Road Ahead (Final Thoughts)

Any job, just like life, can’t last forever. There’s any number of reason why a top leader can, would, or should step down.

DePinho noted his own shortcomings and stepped aside. Robbins found a role he believed to be a better fit for him after his years of leading TMC. And Chu felt compelled to follow his passions.

DePinho and Robbins both had a decent run, as far as length of tenure, which parallels with a 2015 analysis by data firm Equilar for CNNMoney that notes CEOs remain at the helm for at least six years. And while Chu didn’t quite fit that statistic, it’s likely his successor will, given his current tenure.

At this point, the main thing each of these organizations is likely seeking is stability. As I noted at the beginning of this article, there’s confusion and uncertainty in the healthcare industry now more than ever before. So, continued disruption in leadership is the last thing any healthcare organization needs ” in Houston or elsewhere.

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