MetroHealth's New CEO Talks With WTAM

Dr. Airica SteedPhoto: Tom Moore. WTAM

(Cleveland) – On Thursday, January 12, WTAM’s Tom Moore had the chance to sit down for a one-on-one conversation with Dr. Airica Steed, the newly-hired CEO of MetroHealth Medical Center. Dr. Steed had been hired by the MetroHealth board to replace retiring CEO Dr. Akram Boutros.   

The original plan was for the two to work together as Dr. Steed learned everything about MetroHealth. However, that changed when Dr. Boutros was fired when it was discovered that he had approved his own bonus payments. Dr. Boutros said the board had given him that authority. The whole issue is being dealt with in the courts. Meanwhile, Dr. Steed came to Cleveland a month earlier than planned to take over the day-to-day operation of MetroHealth.  

Dr. Steed has a Doctor of Education in Ethical Leadership. She has taught nursing, health care management, business management, quality, and ethics, including at Ohio University.  She is also a registered nurse, and proudly has that designation on her MetroHealth name badge. 

What follows is a transcript of the interview, done at her office in MetroHealth’s new Glick Tower 

You’ve been here about a month now. 

30 days. 

Was this when you were originally supposed to start? 

I’m literally supposed to have started this week. However, I came in a month earlier, to help really navigate the organization through some troubled waters. 

Was that your decision to come in early? 

It was a combined decision. I was certainly asked to come in sooner, given the circumstances. I was literally on the plane at that moment’s notice to come in and take over, to wrap my arms around the organization, and my arms around the community. To really be that stable guide. 

How did you feel that you would not have the chance of working with your predecessor (Dr. Akram Boutros)? Is that the way you can work? 

A little background about myself. I’m a critical care emergency room nurse. We usually jump right in, and we know how to troubleshoot. We certainly know how to navigate through the most complex of challenges. So, from my perspective, this is business as usual. However, it would have been better to have had a softer transition. Here’s what I walked into on a positive front. I am surrounded by a fabulous, a profound team. So, I am very fortunate to have the best leadership team around. They’re dedicated, they’re committed. They certainly know the key focal points of the organization. I don’t feel that I’ve missed a beat. I’ve surrounded myself with the right people. I’ve really learned a lot from being in touch with the people, not only within the four walls of MetroHealth, but I’ve broadened my focus to the community, and even going down to the state level to understand and balance out all the key objectives I need. 

You’re in the same town as Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, yet MetroHealth has its own role. 

Living in the same space as those profound organizations breeds an opportunity to collaborate as to how we can define excellence for the community at large. We are cross-populating into some of the same communities. I strongly believe what differentiates MetroHealth is that we are truly the community’s hospital. We belong to this community. Everything we do is in response to that community need. That’s a particular angle I am focusing on and shaping in a profound way. 

When you first heard the word that Dr. Boutros had been fired, and the circumstances behind that, what was your first thought? 

The first thought that came to mind was disappointment. Honestly, it caught me off guard. Certainly, no leader wants to have to follow that kind of circumstance. It’s not ideal, it’s very unfortunate. It’s not fair, to me, to the organization we serve, to the people who are dedicated and committed, being in the shadow of that kind of image. It doesn’t feel good for the community at large. 

How do you feel your relationship with the MetroHealth board is so far? 

Very positive. I have a great deal of respect for the board. It was a difficult, courageous decision they had to make (to fire Dr. Boutros). They didn’t have to make it. I can honestly say the board sounded the alarm. They had to balance out several things at the same time. For that, the board earned my 100 percent confidence in them. As a collective, we’re all going to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to be transparent. We have a responsibility to be quickly decisive as we adjust. We also have to be honest on where we fell short. My heavy focus has been on how we keep this in the rear-view mirror. We don’t want this cloud to become who we are, and what we are, or a reflection of who we are and what we are. 

What are you and the board doing to make sure everything is as transparent as possible? 

We’re being a lot more intentional about transparency in communication and opening up in a very honest kind of way. The key decisions need to be made early to safeguard the organization. One of the very decisive decisions we have made is to bring in an outside set of eyes. An outside third-party reviewer. So obviously, we trust ourselves, and we have a great deal of expertise. I have a lot of experience about the topics at play here. But I think we have to take a comprehensive, deep look under the hood, and identify all our practices and procedures. All of our players. And really get an opinion on what adjustments need to be made and how quickly we can make those. Transparency is certainly along the way. We have a responsibility to rebuild the trust at large in our community. Our image, through it all, has been stained. Personally, I’d like to say this is 100 percent in the rear-view, but there are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be answered. 

From what you have learned in the last month, what is the best thing about MetroHealth? 

Hands down, and as I say this, my heart is skipping a beat and fluttering, the people who commit themselves to MetroHealth every single day – and I call them the heroes – that is MetroHealth. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my experience. I’ve never seen such a dedicated, committed, exceptional culture of people. That is a difference maker across the board. Because we have such great people and great heroes, and great clinicians, I know the organization has no bounds as to where it can possibly go. I’ve been extremely forthright in saying we are going to be the national model for health equity. What patient-centered excellence looks like, with outcomes in which we can really demonstrate, and showcase, what we can do. It is the people who make the difference in that. 

Going the other way, what is the one thing that needs to be changed or dealt with? 

There are a lot of opportunities. I do believe we have to address some of the headwinds of the (staff) shortage that is a national problem. While I have said we have wonderful people, there aren’t enough of them to go around. We have to be innovative and creative on how we can build up a much more profound pipeline of individuals so that we’re not burning out the people that we have. We have an opportunity to ensure that we fill all of the beds in the organization. If we don’t have the people we need to deal with that, well, that’s a challenge. That’s front and center on the forefront. 

Is there anything else you would like to tell people of the Cleveland area about yourself and about MetroHealth? 

My emphasis on health equity, and my emphasis on community health. Those two things go hand-in-glove for me. For many centuries, we’ve been plagued with inequity that shows up in health care. The light shone on this at the height of the COVID pandemic. A gross level of disparities in different demographics. We certainly have some work to do when it comes to improving accessibility. Improving and expanding access to primary care and specialty care. We have work to do to improve the life expectancy of those we serve. We have work to do in terms of addressing not just the direct health care needs, but the social drivers of health, like transportation, food insecurity, housing insecurity, lifting out communities out of poverty. Building up a pipeline. Investing in jobs in our  

community. We have a lot of work to do that I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and really get into the trenches in addressing those particular areas of opportunity. 

You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, but you sound like the person who can do it. 

I’ve never been one to run away from a burning building. Run away from a challenge. I’m the one who has been front and center, ready to go. I’m so fueled by what I have seen. I have started a listening and engagement tour. Not just within the four walls of MetroHealth, but I’ve expanded that to the community as well. So I can listen, so I can learn, and work hand and glove with the people I’m working with. To prioritize what those needs are. I’m encouraged by our progress. 

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