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 8:00 p.m. MST

Lee is animated when she talks, but with a controlled, subtle type of energy. On the table in front of her is a slim black notebook with observations in meticulous handwriting, yet she doesn't need to refer to it when she speaks.

She praised the synergy exemplified by radiologists and maternal fetal medicine professionals who work together closely in the OB/GYN area — not a common practice across the country.

Another good example is Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, who has willingly shared his genetically engineered mice with other professors. The university's nationally recognized core facilities — where physicians and clinical professors from all disciplines can share expensive machines — also allows for collaboration and keeps costs low, Lee's second goal.

Despite being named No. 1 in the nation for quality by the by the University HealthSystem Consortium in 2010 (above place such as Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Stanford) University Health Care needs to improve in value, or quality divided by cost, Lee said.

Using money more efficiently means more can be directed toward personalizing health care, Lee's main focus.

"Walking into a shoe store where every shoe is a size 8 is just not as efficient as … getting a perfect fit for everyone and not having them come back in five times," she said. "We're all genetically and biologically different. The ways to treat us may be different."

Because some people are predisposed to pain pill addictions, heart disease or certain cancers, their treatment should reflect that.

Lee loves the example of the pilot program, Women's Midlife Assessment Clinic, where women ages 45-60 come to the Salt Lake clinic for a half-day, "head-to-toe" examination.

Each woman is seen by doctors from internal medicine, gynecology and dermatology who have already reviewed the woman's provided health history.

Women can also chat with health coaches about things such as exercise goals, stress management and lowering blood pressure. Finally, at the end of the day, the medical team summarizes the assessment and any test results, and sends the woman home with a plan of action.

It may seem like a lot of time to devote to one patient, but if it prevents future problems, Lee believes it will save energy and money in the long run.

"She has a vision," says Debiao Li, director of the Biomedical Imaging Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a friend of Lee's since the mid-1990s. "She always has something that she wants to do. And she really does it. She doesn't just talk about it. She has a real talent … to mobilize people, motivate them to get things done."

Journey to the top

A college graduate by 19, a Ph.D. by 22 and a medical doctor by 25, (30 when she finished her residency and fellowship) Lee, now 45, is somewhat of a rock star among medical professionals.

But there's no haughtiness in her smile and her confidence is a pleasant mix of capacity and curiosity.

"When I first met her, I knew how bright she was," Grist said. "But what took me back was how modest and approachable (she was). She has this straightforward, unassuming, modest, sincere approach to life, which is amazing, considering how accomplished she is."

As a radiologist, Lee uses magnetic resonance imaging to study diseases, particularly in the kidneys, and in the heart and circulatory system. She wrote a textbook on the topic, spent years leading the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine and loves to work in her lab, where co-investigators and graduate students all call her Vivian.

"Oh well," she says with a smile. "It's fine with me."

For Lee, it's not about titles or prestige, it's about the joy of discovery and using those discoveries to help others — lessons she learned from her endocrinologist mother and electrical engineer father. Both immigrated to the United States from China as children, studied at Berkley and still teach at the University of Oklahoma.

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