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Chief Clinical Officer: ‘We All Need to be Committed to Providing Quality Care’

The new top doctor at Atlantic Health System views mentoring as one of her favorite job responsibilities.

Every member of a health system has a responsibility to promote quality care, the new chief clinical officer of Atlantic Health System says.

Suja Mathew, MD, was recently hired to serve as executive vice president and chief clinical officer of the Morristown, New Jersey-based health system. Before joining Atlantic, she was the chair of medicine for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System in Cook County , Illinois.

HealthLeaders recently talked with Mathew about a range of issues, including quality care, patient access, research and academic programs, and mentoring. The following is a transcript of that discussion, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

HealthLeaders: As chief clinical officer, how can you promote quality care?

Suya Mathew: Every individual in this organization must promote quality care. That applies to every clinical individual and every non-clinical individual. We all need to be committed to providing quality care.

Having said that, as chief clinical officer, our quality and patient safety programs roll up to me, so I have direct accountability. We have a long history of being recognized as a high-quality provider of patient care and a safe provider of patient care. I will be looking at our programs—always looking to see where we can improve. My goal is to be better. We are great now and we are going to be better. As our environment continues to shift and as challenges in our industry continue to affect us, we will be looking for opportunities to improve.

HL: How are you going to approach improving patient access to Atlantic’s network of care?

Matthew: The key is to ensure no matter where a patient or family member enters the Atlantic Health System that individual will have access to the very best care that we offer should they need it. My goal is to make sure that we continue to look at what our patients and our communities need in place where they are and to match that up with the resources that we have in local communities.

I also want to create clear routes where patients can, if needed, access our secondary and tertiary services. So, when they need to stay healthy, we want to achieve that locally; but when they need a higher level of care, they will be able to access all of the resources that we have at Atlantic.

HL: How are you going to approach elevating the health system’s research and academic programs?

Matthew: Clinical work and academic programs are symbiotic. We provide outstanding clinical care at Atlantic, and that is exactly the type of system where you want to educate learners. That is also the type of system where you want to conduct research. These areas fuel each other.

We are already providing excellent clinical care, we are already doing meaningful research particularly in clinical trials, and we are already doing impactful medical education. We are going to try to continue to build the connections between each of those three pieces of work so that our research and our clinical trials elevate the clinical services that we can provide to our patients. We want our educational programs to elevate the clinical interaction that we have with our patients. We want the great clinical work that we are doing to be fully leveraged to educate our learners and clinicians of tomorrow.

HL: How did serving as chair of medicine for the Cook County Health and Hospital System prepare you for the role as chief clinical officer at Atlantic?

Matthew: I was at Cook County Health and Hospital System for 22 years. I grew up professionally in that system. In my last role there, which was as chair of medicine, I oversaw delivery of internal medicine and oversaw education and research activities throughout the department. So, that range of work is similar to what I am doing at Atlantic as chief clinical officer; however, the scope of what I do at Atlantic is larger.

Cook County was a wonderful place for me to be for so long. It is a public health system that does great work but does so within a very challenging environment. Learning as a clinician in that environment and learning how to lead in that environment has prepared me for working at Atlantic. I learned how to honor my creativity and my ingenuity while working in an under-resourced environment. I will bring that skillset to Atlantic.

HL: What are the key elements of promoting career sustainability and professional satisfaction among physicians?

Matthew: There are three pillars of professional satisfaction for physicians. First is ensuring a long and sustainable career in medicine. I would break that down to looking at the system within which we practice medicine—we need to ensure that the system promotes high-level activity. Everyone on the care team should be working at the top of their license. So, physicians should be involved in activities that are designed to fully utilize their skillset and knowledge base.

The second element of sustainable professional satisfaction is to look at the individual’s resilience. By and large, the clinical workforce has highly resilient people. We have gone through many years of training and preparation for this work. We are strong. Still, we need to make sure we are allowing our clinicians to invest in themselves. We must support their time away from work.

The third element of creating sustainable professional satisfaction is to look at our leadership. The leadership under which clinicians practice is very impactful in the level of professional satisfaction that they feel. Leaders must have the right qualities—their communication skills must be optimal, they need to be able to motivate the folks who report up to them, and they need to provide an environment that promotes career growth.

HL: What are the primary elements of serving as a mentor to residents and faculty members?

Matthew: This is one of my favorite things to do. I served as a program director and medical educator for most of my career. As a medical educator, what you do as a course director or a program director is you have direct contact with a lot of learners. As the chair of medicine, I had direct contact not only with learners but also with faculty and young leaders. I delight in the opportunity to be part of people’s success stories.

There are formal programs that can facilitate mentoring. But at the end of the day, it takes individuals who will be generous with their time to invest in learners and younger colleagues. For us as leaders, it is often a matter of a little bit of our time and energy for a significant payoff. I have been the recipient of strong mentoring over the years as well as sponsorship, both of which have propelled my career in ways that I could not have imagined. I feel it is a responsibility to pay that back, but it is also a great joy to be a mentor.

Related: New Mass General Brigham CMO Shares Goals and Perspectives

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.

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