One of the great things — if not the greatest — about my chosen profession is that I'm given the opportunity to meet and interview some amazing people. The simple fact that I'm a journalist opens a lot of doors. Now, in terms of name recognition, I wouldn't presume to hold my list up to that of, say, Matt Lauer. I've spent my entire career in the trade and business press. There's no Springsteen or Cruise on my list, but I would argue the likes of James Bagian and Craig Barrett have had a more significant impact on society than, oh, I don't know, the Octomom.
I spent the first 15 years of my career in Washington, D.C., and interviewed a host of senators, agency heads and department secretaries. I talked to military brass as they planned for and executed the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. One month after the Sept. 11 attacks, I spent a day on a Coast Guard cutter patrolling the New York City harbor.?
Among the interviews that stand out the most are those with people who were true visionaries; people who were presented with a complex set of challenges and were able to boil them down to a core set of principles and then, importantly, lead. I'd put Benjamin Chu on that list.
I had the privilege early last month of meeting Dr. Chu in his Pasadena, Calif., office. It was uncharacteristically chilly and rainy that Wednesday morning, but that didn't dampen the spirits of the American Hospital Association's new chair-elect. We sat in his comfortable and rather modest corner office for nearly two hours talking about his background and vision, not just for the AHA, but for health care as a whole.
Dr. Chu has one of those resumés that makes you wonder what it is you've been doing with your life: The son of Chinese immigrants, he studied at Yale. He got his medical degree at NYU and a master's in public health at Columbia. After finishing his residency, he turned toward service in New York City's public hospitals, rather than pursuing what certainly would have been a more lucrative career in cardiology. Over the next 20-plus years, Dr. Chu built an accomplished career in public health, academia and now as a top executive at Kaiser Permanente.
As impressive as the credentials may be, what struck me the most was his passion for improving the health of his patients — check that — of all patients. It is a lesson he learned at a very young age, as a patient himself, suffering from both rheumatic fever and a heart condition. "I'm always focused on what is the right thing to do for our patients," he says.
We are heading into some challenging times in health care. Most significantly, the pressure is on to shift from a volume-driven system to one based on value, outcomes and population health. Having spent time on the front lines in public health and now leading a fully integrated system, Dr. Chu grasps the major system reforms that need to be made. He firmly believes that the nation's hospitals can rise to the challenge, even in uncertain financial times.