Alumni Spotlight on Wright L. Lassiter III

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If there were a rock star in healthcare administration, it would be Wright L. Lassiter III. As CEO of Alameda County Medical Center in Oakland, California, and its flagship, Highland Hospital, Lassiter has orchestrated what to many seemed virtually impossible: a complete turnaround of the 475-bed healthcare institution that operates on an annual budget of $557 million.

Faced with dire circumstances—a $53.6 million deficit, bottom-of-the-barrel rankings, union unrest, a doctor having been beaten by a patient, HIV-tainted blood thrown out without proper precautions, a patient suicide—Lassiter joined Alameda County at a pivotal, painful time in the hospital’s 100+ year history, becoming the 10th CEO in 11 years.

But no CEO is a solo act, and Lassiter credits his team as the driving force behind the turnaround and expects the same to hold true during the institution’s coming growth. “I operate from a servant-leader philosophy—no one can achieve goals alone and that the work should benefit the institution, not the individual,” said Lassiter. “Maximizing the talents of the team is the engine that drives success. As CEO, my role is to ensure that we hire and have the right people, provide a clear outline of our goals and ensure the team has what they need to succeed. Every person on the team, including me, is accountable for delivering.”

A key first step for Lassiter was shifting the culture from one of accepting defeat to one defined by possibility and optimism. Early on, Lassiter and Bill Manns, Chief Operating Officer, adopted an interesting “odd couple” team approach for identifying issues and solutions—and shifting the mindset of the organization. Teaming a lab tech, finance expert and radiologist, for example, ensured the working teams had a broad and diverse lens. The resulting outcomes? Better ideas about what to tackle and how best to solve challenges. These disparate, eclectic teams identified areas where costs could be trimmed without constricting services or negatively impacting patient care. Moreover, this team approach has resulted in an expansion of services.

By 2008, three years of this new team-oriented leadership and heightened accountability had produced a level of stability that outsiders—and insiders—had once viewed as impossible for this urban safety-net healthcare organization. Located in the heart of a city plagued by violence, team Lassiter transformed Alameda County Medical Center into a model for other public hospitals—as well as private ones. “In education, UC Berkeley is a great public institution. Our goal is to bring that level of excellence to the public healthcare arena, and we are well down that road,” noted Lassiter.

Reducing patient risk and improving patient care have always been key metrics for Lassiter. Internal programs, as well as participation in BETA’s Quest for Zero: Excellence in OB initiative, provided the team with needed knowledge and support for driving measurable changes and improvements. “Healthcare has been late to the table on process improvement issues, and that is not acceptable. Our job as professionals and providers of care is to continually push for improvements in patient safety and care,” remarked Lassiter. The 2011 Joint Commission’s ranking of Alameda as one of the nation’s Top Performers on Key Quality Measures is proof that rigor and relentless accountability are keys to continued excellence.

For Lassiter, a key marker in Alameda’s success came when Alameda’s Chief Medical Officer proposed a very challenging risk management objective—a zero level of ventilator-associated pneumonia in the ICU. According to Lassiter, the response to this challenge was “a clear sign that the team was as driven as the CEO.” Team buy-in was proof of a common desire to achieve an exemplary level of patient care.

Nearly seven years after moving to the Bay Area and taking the helm at Alameda County Medical Center, what’s the view from Lassiter’s window? Mud and rebar: the makings of a construction site, home to a stellar new $668 million hospital building rising from a strong, stable foundation.

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