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Larry R. Kaiser, MD, FACS: Five Years, Five Questions

POSTED ON September 23, 2016

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the tenure of Larry R. Kaiser, MD, FACS. When Dr. Kaiser was appointed on April 1, 2011, following an exhaustive international search, he became not just the Dean of the medical school but also the President and CEO of Temple University Health System and the Vice President for Health Affairs at Temple University.

On September 27, 2016, Dr. Kaiser will be invested as the inaugural Lewis Katz Dean at the School of Medicine. This is the first named, endowed dean’s chair in Temple history, and is a part of the legacy of Temple advocate and trustee Lewis Katz, CST ’63. To help celebrate Lewis Katz’ lifetime of philanthropy and service and Dr. Kaiser’s transformative leadership as the singular head of Temple Health, we sat down with Dr. Kaiser as he reflected on the challenges, opportunities and achievements he has overseen to date.

When you first arrived at Temple in the role of both medical school dean and top health care executive, what were some of the immediate things on your to-do list? 

When I arrived at Temple, the clinical and academic functions of the health system and medical school were managed as separate entities. Therefore my most immediate priority was to get a handle on how to leverage my new, unified position to bring both sides of Broad Street together. Prior to my arrival, these roles – dean of the medical school, CEO of the health system, leader of Temple’s health sciences programs – had been separated. Yet the trustees of the university and health system recognized that this new health care market and era of academic medicine called for the educational and clinical enterprises to be brought under one umbrella. So much of my first year was devoted to the process of unification. It was a complicated enterprise with a lot of silos, but I had to hit the ground running, because the healthcare marketplace in Philadelphia was quickly changing, and the needs and demands of our medical students were changing as well.

I spent much of my time building relationships. It was clear from the time of my interview process that the Board of Trustees at Temple University took the mission and legacy of medical education and care at Temple – really all the way back to Russell Conwell – very seriously. One of my first jobs was simply acting as a liaison and an officer for Temple University, and working with the president, the trustees, the other health science deans, health system leaders and many others to set goals for streamlining and integrating operations.

We were facing very tangible challenges. We had to work immediately to bring health system finances back to solvency. We did that by becoming more efficient without sacrificing quality, but that involved a lot of changes and a fair bit of time – it was not easy. I was also faced with a number of critical faculty vacancies, including the chairs of both medicine and surgery, as well as decisions that had to be made regarding various departments and offices. There was certainly not the luxury of dipping my toe in the water – it was dive in and swim right away.

What did you find here that surprised you, in terms of aspects or strengths of the School of Medicine and Health System?

Although I came to Temple from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, I had spent 17 years at the University of Pennsylvania, so I was certainly familiar with Temple. When I arrived, I was immediately impressed by the outstanding talent here.

The leadership of the health system was superb, as were the associate deans of the medical school. There were quite a lot of dedicated, thoughtful and passionate people here who deeply believed in the mission.

Temple University Hospital, for all its financial difficulties, functioned at a very high level. It did a very difficult job very well, and was able to not only serve as an incredibly vital community hospital but also as a top-tier academic medical center and research institution. These are not qualities that are successfully combined often – Temple is one of the very few places in the world to do it so efficiently.

And the students, who have always had a reputation for being hard-working and passionate about service – again I knew that even when I was across town – were highly, highly motivated. I was, and still am, constantly amazed by them. The post-bac program here impressed me as a particular strength and a huge asset – if you can make it in that program, you’ll do very well as a medical student.

But what surprised me most was how deeply ingrained the culture of service and dedication is here. It’s become something of a mantra among our alumni that students come here because they want to be doctors. There are some great medical schools in the world, of course, where you can chart many different courses in medicine from being a research scientist to being a very specialized physician to being an academic leader, and all of that is great – our students do that too. But overwhelmingly, the sort of people who self-select for our medical school are people for whom the practice of medicine is an avocation – a real calling. That’s very special.

You have now been here a little over five years – what accomplishments are you most proud of? 

The acquisition of Fox Chase Cancer Center is, I think, a seminal point in our history. What they bring to the table and how they deepen our entire enterprise – as one of the most recognized and high-performing brands in cancer care in the world – is extraordinary.

I am also proud about how we have dealt with the challenges of our Health System’s finances. It is something that I think everyone at the Temple University Health System deserves enormous credit for. This is a difficult market, and we deal with a particularly difficult piece of it in terms of our patient population. To make the kind of changes necessary to be more efficient has been hard. It has required sacrifice. But everybody stepped up, and today we are in a very stable position; I’m very proud of that.

We have restructured the educational curriculum during my time here, and I think the changes have been very thoughtful, and very responsive to the evolving nature of medicine. Temple really leads the way in clinical training, and our students graduate exceedingly well prepared for the future in front them.

Finally, since I’ve been here we’ve recruited a lot of outstanding physicians as chairs and faculty members. And success in that arena begets success. These professionals have built new, outstanding programs, created new research opportunities, new collaboration possibilities – uplifting the whole enterprise.

Looking ahead, what are some big things that you hope to tackle?

For the most part, I plan to continue the great work that we’re already doing, but one goal that springs immediately to mind is to build upon our status as one of the global leaders in population health and urban bioethics. We are uniquely well-suited to lead the way in this essential pursuit. Medicine is increasingly realizing the importance of  issues of representation, of managing chronic conditions, of socioeconomic realities, of blending “soft skills” with the more traditional technical skills, of care coordination that doesn’t just begin and end with an ER visit – these are all topics on which Temple’s expertise is second to none. We live it every day. And so we are, I believe, at the vanguard of some of the most important topics that medicine will face in this century.

Of course, we have many other high priorities. We want to continue to expand our clinical care – not only as a destination for complex, high-acuity patients but also in terms of expanding our footprint and bringing care closer to where people live. And we need to do that in a market that is changing under our feet every day. There are always facility upgrades in mind, such as expanding our medical office spaces, adding research space and so on. And finally, Temple is first and foremost an educational enterprise – at the end of the day that is why we are all here. So we must continue to stay at the forefront of clinical training, be responsive to new needs, tackle problems of medical student debt through raising more funds for scholarships, and so on.

I think we are in a great place, and well-primed to tackle whatever lies ahead.

On September 27th you will be named the first Lewis Katz Dean at the School of Medicine. What does that mean to you?

An endowed dean’s chair gives me and every future dean a great leg up in being able to capitalize on opportunities and direct resources to priority areas. It really empowers the dean to execute on his vision – it’s huge.

To be honored with the opportunity to represent the name Lewis Katz…well, that means so much to me on a very personal level. I first met Lewis years ago, and over time he became something of a mentor to me, almost a father figure. I learned so much from him. His ability to think abstractly, to look at the big picture, was like nobody else’s. He had an amazing ability to absorb literally every detail of an issue. In addition to serving on Temple University’s board, he also served on the Fox Chase board, and he knew every single thing about whatever issue they were considering. It was amazing.

And he was fun. Just a man who loved life, loved people and felt so grateful to be in a position to try and do good in the world. Which he absolutely did. Even to this day most people don’t realize just how much he actually did, for a lot of causes, but especially for Temple. He’d meet me for lunch somewhere, and maybe the last time we spoke I had mentioned that our Radiology Department needed some new piece of equipment – well, he’d sit down next time and say “oh yeah, almost forgot” and hand me a folded-up check for $200,000. Or when we were in difficult conversations with the Commonwealth about state funding issues, he would listen, make a call, go visit someone, and the next day, it would be resolved. Lewis’s son, Drew, by the way, is moving forward with his father’s commitment. It has been a great pleasure getting to know him better.

So yes, while the chair itself is a great honor, what’s truly moving on a personal level is to be able to carry Lewis’ name with me. Every day when I arrive at the school, I look at his portrait on the wall at the entrance, and every day as I leave I do the same. And I just hope that, somewhere in between, I have done some justice to him, and earned even a portion of the honor and commitment that the Lewis Katz name entails.