An interview with Richard Pitts, D.O.’73, PH.D.
RICHARD PITTS, D.O.’73, PH.D., began his health care career in emergency, occupational and preventive medicine and went on to earn a doctoral degree in applied management and decision sciences from Walden University and five certificates from Harvard Business School’s HBX program. He served in several leadership roles at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, CA, including as assistant area medical director, and as medical director at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center (ARMC), a public hospital in Colton, CA. He’s also shared his insights and experience in health care leadership as an expert physician coach, medical group consultant and faculty member at the University of California-Irvine Medical Center. Last November the San Bernardino County, CA, Board of Supervisors passed a resolution commending his work at ARMC and his service to the community.
Last October Pitts became vice president of clinically integrated networks and senior medical director at St. Joseph Heritage Healthcare. In January, SJHH merged to form an 11-state, 50-hospital health system composed of 111,000 employees, 38,000 nurses and 20,000 physicians. In his roles with SJHH, he works to support the development of the organization’s Southern California High Performing Network (HPN), a network of providers designed to provide more cost-effective care and improved health outcomes throughout the region. On May 23, 2018, he delivered the keynote speech at the commencement ceremony for Western University Colleges of Allied Health Professions and Podiatric Medicine.
Q: When you were a student at COMS, now DMU, did you have any inkling you would go on to earn a Ph.D. in applied management and certificates from Harvard Business School’s HBX? What led to those pursuits?
A: Doing a Ph.D. was always in the back of my mind since I was already accepted into a molecular biology Ph.D. program at the University of California-Irvine when I started at DMU. However, I thought it would be in a science-related field. Doing a Ph.D. in management and decision sciences came out of necessity to obtain more education in the field of management since I had been “drafted” into administrative roles.
The Harvard Business School HBX program was serendipitous. I had completed a certification with two Harvard professors on “Immunity to Change,” which I use every day in my administration role and in physician coaching. Because of my participation in this certification program, my name wound up on a Harvard mailing list. When I first read about the HBX programs, I thought they were a perfect match with my work schedule since the classes were all online. However, being online doesn’t mean they are any less rigorous, especially the Credential Of Readiness (CORe) classes in accounting for managers, economics for managers and business analytics for managers. These were very time-consuming and required a three-hour final exam at a secure computer testing center.
Q: What do you think have been the biggest game-changers in medicine and health care over the years?
A: Imaging has been a huge game-changer since it provides near certainty of what is going on in over 90 percent of patients who have an imaging study. Advances in endoscopy and minimally invasive surgery are a close second. Pharmacology for hypertension and lipid disorders has had a huge impact on cardiovascular diseases. I would say that if you don’t smoke, aren’t obese, and exercise, then 75 is the new 65 compared to when I started to practice.
I would say that if you don’t smoke, aren’t obese, and exercise, then 75 is the new 65 compared to when I started to practice.
Q: What would you like to see change in medicine and health care?
A: My experience at a large complex teaching hospital before and after the Accountable Care Act demonstrated to me that having a system in place to provide population health management allows people to avoid many expensive visits to the emergency department and helps to slow down pathologic processes. The question is how to fund such care. The individual mandate for health insurance seems to be quite unpopular. Yet most people want people who drive cars to have auto insurance, don’t they? The individual mandate, while unpopular, is necessary to help pay for care for those less fortunate. Somehow, we need a system that provides population management that isn’t put on the backs of physicians.
Q: The myriad hats you’ve worn in your career – physician, medical director, consultant, professor, administrator, etc. – give you a broad view of health care. What’s the “state” of health care from your perspectives?
A: In my opinion, the state of health care in the U.S. depends on where you obtain it. There is no question that the U.S. has some amazing health care facilities as well as some challenging health care facilities. Usually, a question like this brings up the need to improve care and to control costs. I maintain there is a need for more personal responsibility. Although a significant challenge, decreasing obesity in the U.S. would decrease diabetes, which in turn would decrease renal failure and dialysis, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, stroke and more. The cost of health care could drop precipitously. I know that this thought might be controversial, but it is true.
I maintain there is a need for more personal responsibility. Although a significant challenge, decreasing obesity in the U.S. would decrease diabetes, which in turn would decrease renal failure and dialysis, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, stroke and more.
Q: What does a physician coach do? What coaching could physicians use?
A: Not unlike being “called” to do administration, I was called on to help some fellow physicians. This work took on a life of its own. Some of the work I was doing in my Ph.D. program was a “one-off” from helping physicians to improve patient satisfaction, a key metric in today’s reality. While essentially all physicians have high IQs, not all are blessed with high emotional quotients (EQ). The work done by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., on emotional intelligence is essential for today’s physicians to know, understand and adopt. All physicians today are measured on performance including quality metrics and patient satisfaction. Helping physicians to see blind spots in their EQ is extremely rewarding and on occasion “job-saving” for the physician. The nice thing is that unlike your IQ, which you are born with, EQ can be learned and improved.
Q: What advice would/do you give to today’s medical students?
A: The biggest challenge for everyone and especially physicians is to embrace appropriate change. Becoming rigid is one of the biggest things to avoid. I have sought out nearly continuous education as a way to stay current and relevant. Education is also a way to avoid burnout, which seems to occur earlier in the career of today’s physicians.
Being a physician is demanding mentally and physically. Staying mentally and physically fit is essential. I am convinced that running five miles a day everyday kept me in the emergency department an extra 10 years, where I love to be. And I am thoroughly convinced that my near continuous education has kept me relevant and flexible in these challenging times.