New CEO of University of Utah Health Care aims to make a real difference in the challenges patients, doctors face

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Vivian Lee the new CEO of University Health Care and dean of the medical school talks Monday, Feb. 6, 2012 about the position and being in Utah.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

NORMAN, OKLA. — As they walked down the tile corridor, 12-year-old Vivian Lee stayed close on the heels of Dr. Hal Belknap.

He carried a clipboard filled with medical charts and test results, yet each time he walked into a patient's room he greeted them with a cheerful hello and asked about their families, as well as their pain levels.

Then, Belknap would step back and motion Vivian to the side of the bed, introducing her as his "shadow" for early Saturday rounds at the Norman Municipal Hospital in Norman, Okla.

It didn't take many Saturday mornings for Vivian to realize a hospital was where she wanted to be.

Today, that hospital is University Hospital nestled on Salt Lake City's east bench, and a nameplate on Lee's door proclaims her "Senior Vice President for Health Sciences."

Thanks to a litany of degrees — M.D., Ph.D. and MBA — Lee is also the CEO of University of Utah Health Care and dean of the U.'s School of Medicine.

Choosing her favorite job is like picking a favorite child, Lee jokes. She's just excited to be working with a world-class university and its nationally ranked health care system.

Even with the university's many accolades and accomplishments, Lee still sees room for improvement and is pushing for increased teamwork and creativity — all with the goal of providing more and better-personalized health care.

"If we (take) this very innovative organization, and have them focused on solving a lot of the health care challenges that we're facing," she said, "then I think we have the opportunity to see some real change and make a real difference."

She's the person to make it happen, say colleagues and friends.

"The best form of leadership is leadership by example," said Thomas Grist, chairman of the department of radiology at the University of Wisconsin, a colleague of Lee's f om their residencies at Duke University. "She presents an example of excellence in everything she touches. I don't think she's ever lost sight of the fact of what this is all about, that academic medicine is about improving the health of our patients."

A vision for health care

Bustling in the U.'s 10 primary and specialty health centers, four hospitals, four colleges and one school of medicine are 1,542 doctors and professors, 82 medical students and 719 medical residents or fellows. Last year, those health centers and hospitals saw more than 1 million patients with an additional 39,000-plus visits to the emergency room.

Lee is responsible for all of those people — which might explain why she's up every morning at 5:30 to check her email while she exercises on her stair stepper.

Her three-titles-in-one position, though somewhat rare at academic medical centers (colleges with hospitals attached), is a better way to manage, Lee explains, because it prevents power struggles between three people.

It also means that Lee is always busy. Since her July 1 appointment, she's jumped into administrative duties, started her own lab (with three active National Institutes of Health research grants) and tried to meet as many professors, doctors and students as she can by dropping in on department meetings and touring facilities.

"There are tremendous opportunities here," she told a group of OB/GYN clinicians and faculty members during a recent weekly meeting.

"There is a very positive culture … especially compared to other academic medical centers. There's a foundation to do a lot of fabulous things."

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