Leaders in Medical Education: Dr. Benjamin Chu, Group President at Kaiser Permanente

Sep 14, 2015 by Thasin Jaigirdar

Benjamin K. Chu, MD, MPH, MACP, was named group president for Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California and Georgia regions in October 2014. He directs health plan and hospital operations for 14 hospitals and 237 medical offices to serve more than 4 million members in both locations.

Dr. Chu joined Kaiser Permanente as its regional president of Southern California in February 2005. In January 2011, he was given the added responsibility of overseeing the Hawaii Region as a group president responsible for both the Southern California and Hawaii regions. In July 2013, he was named executive vice president for Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and appointed to the National Executive Team, which supports the chairman and CEO in setting and ensuring achievement of both the short- and long-term strategies and performance of the Hospitals and Health Plan organizations.

Before coming to Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Chu served for three years as president of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corp., the largest public hospital system in the country. A primary care internist by training, Dr. Chu possesses extensive health care experience as a clinician, administrator and policy advocate. He was senior vice president for Medical and Professional Affairs for HHC in New York from 1990 to 1994. During that period, he also served as acting commissioner of health for the New York City Department of Health.

Dr. Chu also has experience as an academic health center leader. He was senior associate dean at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons from July 2000 to February 2002. He also served at the New York University School of Medicine and Medical Center as associate dean and vice president for Clinical Affairs from April 1994 to May 2000. He was a 1989-1990 Robert Wood Johnson Policy Fellow, serving as legislative assistant for health for New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

At both Kaiser Permanente and New York City, Dr. Chu has been a strong proponent of the use of the electronic health record as a powerful tool for improving quality and outcomes for patient care.

Dr. Chu currently serves on the board of the Commonwealth Fund in New York and is a member of the advisory committee to the director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is the immediate past chair of the American Hospital Association Board of Trustees.

Dr. Chu earned his medical degree at New York University, his master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University.

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How did you get interested in medicine/Primary Care in the first place?
I had rheumatic fever as a child and my first memories were of the hospital with doctors and nurses. It’s really why I went into medicine. I developed an early interest in becoming a cardiologist, and in the whole mission of making a difference in people’s lives.

When I was doing my residency at King’s County public hospital in New York, I saw a health care delivery system that clearly wasn’t working. People had to wait all day to be seen and the appointment schedule was useless. I approached my Chair of Medicine and, after much discussion about my ideas, I was given oversight responsibility for King’s County medical clinic. (At the time the clinic was essentially run by the residents.) My job was part clinical care, part teaching, and pretty much full time taking on the challenge of fixing a myriad of systems that were creating chaos every day for staff, physicians and patients. That’s when I changed from cardiology to general medicine.

As my career progressed, I was able to impact other parts of the care continuum.   I served as chief of ambulatory care at King’s County Hospital (the busiest public outpatient facility in the country), then took over as director of the adult emergency department. Although I wasn’t an ED doctor, I saw that this was a way to directly improve management of the department. I was also able to set in motion the application process for the emergency medicine training program. Along the way, I earned my MPH and through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship, I gained legislative and policy experience during a 15 month stint with New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in Washington D.C.

After my position as Chief Medical Officer of the New York State Hospital System, I moved over to NYU as Associate Dean and Vice President for Clinical Operations for 6 years. I then joined Columbia University as senior associate dean for the college of physicians and surgeons. This gave me a lot of experience around academic health care and non-public hospitals. I returned to the public sphere and after three years as the president of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corp., I accepted the position of president for Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California region. That was in 2005. I also served for a time as president for Kaiser Permanente’s Hawaii region, and now most recently for the Georgia region.

Can you summarize what drove your overall career?
Throughout my career, my focus has always been patient-centric. I went into administration because I wanted to influence and improve the system to provide better access and care for more patients.

If you follow the arc of my career choices, you see that I was interested in making sure we did the best we could for every individual. Throughout the years, the goal remains the same. It’s quality and service and always doing what is best for the patient.

What is the transition like from a clinical role to an administrative role?
Overall there is something special about being up late at night with a patient and their family as they go through a health crisis. It stays with you.

It is important to have more doctors involved with health care administration because it has to do with the clinical perspective you bring to your new role. When you are the one who has provided direct patient care, you can add your own experiential knowledge to how the system can be better coordinated.

What are 2-3 changes you would like to see in the current US healthcare system?
I’m at Kaiser Permanente because integrated care is the key and, with the capitated model, we are able to provide our members with the right care at the right time, throughout their lives. Integrated care and the capitated model are two changes, and the third I would offer is to develop a robust population care management approach to treat chronic conditions and improve people’s lives. Ideally, this would all happen within a multidisciplinary practice where specialists are available to work as a team for the best health outcomes.

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What do you believe is necessary in promoting adoption of new technologies in the healthcare system?
I think EHR’s (electronic health records) are already being utilized across the country and that’s an excellent example of technology that improves health care. However, we know that just getting the paper record into the digital platform is not enough. We also need to organize the information and dive in to the data so clinicians can practice evidence-based medicine and focus on the right things that will make a real difference.

Do you have any final thoughts regarding the Medical profession as a whole?
We now have a whole portfolio of different touch points that our population can access for care. With really robust health records available to us electronically, patients can choose what is most convenient for them and, based on their health concerns, physicians can provide a telephone visit or a video visit or other ways to connect with the patient. The ability to get consultations remotely is going to be terrific.

With new ideas for providing care, and new therapies for chronic conditions on the horizon, it’s a great time to be going into medicine.